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Agent Orange victims hope U.S.-Vietnam conference provides answers

Updated:
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ Many of the children in Hanoi's Peace Village don't understand what caused their handicaps. Their mental development is too limited to know they might be victims of a defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military more than three decades ago.

But those that do comprehend hope researchers at the first-ever Vietnamese-U.S. conference on Agent Orange will find ways to help them and other possible victims.

``I heard the chemical was sprayed over Vietnam and caused people to have handicapped children,'' said 15-year-old Nguyen Thi Khuyen. ``I hope the scientists will pay more attention to children like me whose parents were exposed and help us.''

Hundreds of researchers from Vietnam, the United States and other nations are attending the conference to exchange information on the effects of the defoliant and its highly toxic ingredient, dioxin. The three-day conference that started Sunday stems from an agreement reached last year by the United States and Vietnam. The conference is being funded by the United States.

Khuyen walks slowly, her knees unbending. She is only 3 feet 11 inches tall and studies at the fourth-grade level. Her sister also lives in the village, while her handicapped brother lives elsewhere with her parents.

``My father fought in southern Vietnam during the war,'' Khuyen said.

From 1962 to 1971, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 19 million gallons of defoliants over southern Vietnam to destroy jungle cover for Communist troops, according to U.S. figures. About 55 percent, or nearly 10.5 million gallons, was Agent Orange.

American veterans and many Vietnamese blame a variety of illnesses on exposure to the defoliant, including miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and nervous disorders.

Vietnam's government says the number of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange is about 1 million, including veterans, civilians living in affected areas and their descendants.

But the U.S. government insists there is no scientific proof of a causal relationship.

Vietnam has not directly asked for financial compensation, but it repeatedly has said the United States has a moral and ethical responsibility to deal with the ``consequences of the war.''

Peace Village staff say most of the 84 children living there have parents who fought in areas of southern Vietnam sprayed by Agent Orange.

The village _ a collection of buildings surrounding a playground on Hanoi's outskirts _ opened in 1992 for children with disabilities related to Agent Orange. Between 600 and 700 children have received health care and rehabilitation and gone back to their families, medical director Tran Van Ly said.

Researchers reported at the conference that a new study shows extremely high levels of dioxin in the blood of residents of Bien Hoa, a highly sprayed area near a former U.S. air base, more than 30 years after spraying ended.

Some of the highest levels _ reaching 206 times greater than average _ were found in people born well after spraying stopped, indicating exposure to persistent dioxin residues in soil and water, the researchers said.

Dioxin, one of the most poisonous chemicals created by man, also is one of the most persistent pollutants.

Vietnam's cash-strapped government has not been able to clean up the dioxin pollution in Bien Hoa or resettle the area's 20,000 residents.

Luu Xuan Cuong, 17, says he knows his father fought in the war, but he doesn't understand about Agent Orange. Despite five years in the Peace Village, he studies at the first-grade level.

Operations have straightened his badly bowed legs and he now can move without a walker.

``They're much better now,'' he said of his legs. ``I'm still being treated, and sometime I hope I can walk on my own.''
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