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S&T Cooperation Can Help U.S., Vietnam Overcome Toxic Legacy, Says AAAS Official
Agent Orange contamination remains one of the most contentious legacies of the Vietnam War, but scientific collaboration by the United States and Vietnam can help ease tensions and provide solutions to health and environmental problems associated with the herbicide, Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer, told a 14 May House hearing.
The Vietnamese government estimates that 3 million of its citizens still suffer health effects due to the spraying of Agent Orange, which was applied to vegetation in southern and central Vietnam by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces between 1962 and 1975. In some southern provinces, 50% of the land was completely stripped by Agent Orange.
"The value of science diplomacy should not be underestimated," Turekian told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment. "This is a perfect opportunity where science may prove to be a powerful tool for engagement, as many solutions to Agent Orange issues lie in science and technology."
The Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies found a strong scientific association between Agent Orange exposure and certain types of cancers. It also found looser associations with congenital birth defects and other health disorders. U.S. veterans exposed to the agent began reporting health problems shortly after returning from service in Vietnam, and in 1991 Congress passed an act awarding service-connected disability benefits to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
Delegate Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), chairman of subcommittee, urged the administration to spend more money to help Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and criticized the refusal by the United States to accept legal responsibility for the consequences of the spraying.
Scot Marciel, the U.S. State Department's deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the panel that the United States acknowledges Vietnam's concerns "with the perceived negative health effects of exposure to Agent Orange and its contaminant, dioxin." But he also reaffirmed the refusal by the United States to accept legal liability for damages alleged to be related to Agent Orange. "We continue to stress that discussion of the effects of Agent Orange needs to be based on credible scientific research that meets international standards," Marciel said.
Still, Marciel said the United States and Vietnam have "moved beyond finger-pointing and engaged in practical, constructive cooperation" regarding Agent Orange. President George W. Bush and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet issued a joint statement in 2006 acknowledging dioxin contamination as a legacy of the war. They agreed to collaborate on efforts to clean up dioxin hot spots at former U.S. military air bases and increase humanitarian assistance to the disabled. President Bush signed an appropriations bill last year that includes $3 million for "environmental remediation and health activities" at dioxin hot spots in Vietnam.
A number of U.S. private foundations also are getting involved. The Ford Foundation has invested nearly $4.5 million to address Agent Orange contamination. As part of this effort, it has convened a U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange, with U.S. and Vietnamese co-chairs. Turekian was named to the group late last year and testified before the House committee in that capacity.
The Dialogue Group's most recent meeting was in February 2008, when it assembled in Vietnam to observe the progress in dioxin containment measures. The group also noted progress in expansion of services to people with disabilities and in establishing a high-resolution dioxin testing laboratory. In his prepared remarks, Turekian said the proposed dioxin lab will allow the Vietnamese to test their own environmental and human samples rather than outsourcing the work to labs in Europe and Canada.
"With continued international collaboration and training, this lab may become the first regional standards laboratory for monitoring organic pollutants, contributing to the peer-reviewed literature on a range of potential environmental contaminants that have impact at both national and regional scales," Turekian said. "More importantly, this lab will also provide a training facility for future generations of Vietnamese scientists."
Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, director general of the Ngoc Tam Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City and also a member of the Dialogue Group, told the hearing about her experiences delivering babies whose mothers had been exposed to Agent Orange.
"Forty years ago, when I was an intern, I delivered for the first time in my life a severely deformed baby," she said. "It had no brain and limbs... Since then, every day or two, I have witnessed such birth defects and mothers' suffering." She learned about the possible connection to Agent Orange when American Vietnam veterans visited her hospital and asked about birth defects and cancers related to the herbicide during the war. Phuong said "swift and effective actions" by Congress to help victims of Agent Orange "are of crucial importance in building mutual understanding between our two countries."
Turekian, too, noted the importance of U.S. action to help contain dioxin hot spots and provide humanitarian assistance to those affected by Agent Orange. "It is time to address this legacy of war and work towards putting it behind us so that our rapidly growing bilateral relationship can continue to flourish."
20 May 2008