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Associated Press

Vietnam, US Still in Conflict over Agent Orange Burden

Ben Stocking

Tran Thi Gai’s daughters were born with disabilities in a Vietnamese village where Agent Orange was used. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press)

CAM TUYEN, Vietnam — Her children are 21 and 16 years old, but they
still cry through the night, tossing and turning in pain, sucking their
thumbs for comfort.

Tran Thi Gai, who rarely gets any sleep herself, sings them a
mournful lullaby. “Can you feel my love for you? Can you feel my sorrow
for you? Please don’t cry.’’

Gai’s children — both with twisted limbs and in wheelchairs — were
born in a village that was drenched with Agent Orange during the
Vietnam War. She believes their health problems were caused by dioxin,
a highly toxic chemical in the herbicide, which US troops used to strip
communist forces of ground cover and food.

Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, its most
contentious legacy is Agent Orange. Eighty-two percent of Vietnamese
surveyed in a recent Associated Press-GfK Poll said the United States
should be doing more to help people suffering from illnesses associated
with the herbicide, including children with birth defects.

After President George W. Bush pledged to work on the issue on a
Hanoi visit in 2006, Congress approved $9 million mostly to address
environmental cleanup of Agent Orange. But while the United States has
provided assistance to Vietnamese with disabilities regardless of their
cause, it maintains that there is no clear link between Agent Orange
and health problems.

Vietnamese officials say the United States must make a much bigger
financial commitment — $6 million has been allocated — to adequately
address the problems unleashed by Agent Orange.

“Six million dollars is nothing compared to the consequences left
behind by Agent Orange,’’ said Le Ke Son, deputy general administrator
of Vietnam’s Environmental Administration. “How much does one Tomahawk
missile cost?’’

Between 1962 and 1971, the US military sprayed roughly 11 million
gallons of Agent Orange across large swaths of southern Vietnam. Dioxin
stays in soil and the sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for
generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and
other animals.

Vietnam says as many as 4 million of its citizens were exposed to
the herbicide and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses caused
by it.

But the US government says Vietnamese are too quick to blame Agent
Orange for birth defects that can be caused by malnutrition or other
environmental factors.

“Scientists around the world have done a lot of research on dioxin
and its possible health effects,’’ said Michael Michalak, the US
ambassador in Hanoi. “There is disagreement as to what’s real and what
isn’t, about what the possible connections are.’’

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