HANOI, Vietnam -- Washington and Hanoi have agreed to move ahead on one of the most sensitive issues left from the Vietnam War and start scientific research into the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant sprayed by the United States in South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, U.S. diplomats said.
The agreement, informal at this point, is designed to identify hot spots where levels of cancer-causing chemicals remain high, to devise methods of cleanup and to study related health problems. Both sides are careful not to use the word "compensation," but it is possible that the research could lead to "humanitarian" financial assistance that would be disbursed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which will open its first office in Hanoi next month.
Vietnam has maintained that half a million people have died or contracted serious illnesses as a result of the United States dumping 12 million gallons of chemical defoliants on South Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand. The United States, although it has never taken a formal position on the effects of the spraying, has acknowledged that Agent Orange and other chemicals destroyed 14 percent of South Vietnam's forests.
U.S. diplomats said agreement on joint research and the need to depoliticize the issue represent an important breakthrough in relations and reflect both sides' desire to build on the goodwill created this month when Hanoi and Washington normalized commercial ties after nearly five years of negotiations. Hanoi is also eagerly awaiting confirmation from the White House that President Clinton will visit Vietnam after the elections in November.
For Washington, Agent Orange has traditionally been an off-limits topic. During negotiations in New York in 1978 that nearly led to a resumption of diplomatic ties, the Vietnamese were told that if the subject of Agent Orange were even raised, talks would end -- and Vietnam heeded the warning. But over the course of 25 years, veterans groups -- a powerful constituency in Vietnam as well as the United States -- have kept the issue alive.
About 18 months ago, U.S. Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson told Vietnamese officials that Washington would support joint scientific research. Vietnam did not respond, presumably because of potential backlash if studies showed that the country's food chain was contaminated. The population could have panicked, and agricultural exports most certainly would have been crippled.
For the same reasons, Vietnam in 1995 would not let a U.S. delegation studying the effects of Agent Orange leave the country with blood and soil samples. On July 20 of this year, Arnold Schecter, a University of Texas health specialist who was a member of the 1995 delegation and has visited Vietnam 22 times since 1981, was allowed to fly out with blood samples but had to surrender the food, soil and sediment samples he had collected. He intended to take them to a World Health Organization-certified laboratory in Germany.
Schecter said he was shocked to discover that in 19 of 20 people he tested in Bien Hoa, a village near a former U.S. military base outside Ho Chi Minh City, internal levels of dioxin -- a component of Agent Orange -- had increased. It had been generally assumed that chemicals in the soil and food chain would break down and decrease as years passed.
"If you use the technical definition of an epidemic, you could call this an epidemic," he said. Scientists such as Schecter consider Vietnam an ideal laboratory because chemicals were sprayed on South Vietnam, not North Vietnam, thus making possible comparative studies of one group of people that was exposed and another that was not.
In one of the most comprehensive studies done on Agent Orange, Hatfield Consultants Ltd. of Canada reported in October 1998 that the wartime defoliants had contaminated Vietnam's food chain and created serious environmental and health problems that demanded immediate attention. The study made no attempt to determine the number of people affected.
"If such data were collected in most Western jurisdictions, based on similar sampling levels, major environmental cleanup and more extensive studies would be mandated and implemented," the Hatfield report said.
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