VIETNAMESE show high dioxin levels 30 years after Agent Orange spraying

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Thirty years after the U.S. military stopped spraying the defoliant Agent Orange, a new study by American researchers shows the level of dioxin in the bloodstreams of some Vietnamese remains ``alarmingly high.''

Public health researchers say residents of Bien Hoa City in south Vietnam show dioxin levels as much as 135 times higher than in residents in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital hundreds of miles to the north where the defoliant was not sprayed.

Bien Hoa was a major U.S. air force base and important chemical depot during the Vietnam War.

Most disturbingly, they said, some of the affected residents did not live in Bien Hoa during the war and others are children born many years after the war ended, indicating they were recently exposed to a persistent source of contamination.

Agent Orange exposure has been associated with cancer, birth defects and miscarriages, although a direct link to those health problems remains unproven.

The results are published in the Tuesday issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Agent Orange has long been a knotty dilpmatic subject for both nations. These latest results appear during a particularly tense juncture as Congress delays ratifying a trade pact with Hanoi and amid revelations that former Sen. Bob Kerry conducted a raid in which 13 civilians were killed.

But scientists said today's politics should not overshadow the study's striking findings.

``We have a public health crisis for the people living in Bien Hoa City,'' said Arnold Schecter, the study's lead author and an environmental scientist at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas.

``These are the highest levels we've seen since 1973 after Agent Orange spraying was stopped,'' said Schecter, who has worked in Vietnam since 1984. ``I have never seen children born after the spraying with levels so high.''

Other public health researchers who did not participate in the study said Agent Orange remains a tragic legacy of the war that cannot be ignored. They said the problem probably is confined to a handful of dioxin ``hotspots'' that could be surveyed and cleaned up with adequate funding.

``Although wishful thinkers might have assumed the problem would go away over time, that data indicate that for some populations the exposure continues,'' said Michael Gochfeld of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Between 1962 and 1971, U.S. military tanker planes and helicopters sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants in Operation Ranch Hand to deny cover to insurgent Communist forces.

The defoliants were contaminated with TCDD, the most dangerous form of dioxin.

Soldiers on both sides, as well as local residents, were drenched by the sweet-smelling herbicide. Today, thousands of American servicemen and their families receive disability benefits for health problems related to Agent Orange.

Among Vietnam's 76 million people, more than 1 million are believed to be disabled, including 150,000 children.

In many places, the Vietnamese countryside has not rebounded from the defoliant, but the environmental damage is not uniform.

Bien Hoa, located near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) was one of the biggest Agent Orange stockpiles. In the late 1960s, more than 7,500 gallons of the defoliant spilled there.

Schecter reports at least two sediment and soil samples from the area showed TCDD levels as high as 600,000 parts per trillion. In the United States, he said, government cleanups have been ordered for levels as low as 1,000 ppt.

Throughout Vietnam, more than 2,400 blood samples collected by the Red Cross showed the TCDD levels in humans typically runs about 2 ppt. In Bien Hoa, TCDD levels in 20 people sampled peaked at 271 ppt, and were higher than normal in each case, Schecter said.

Left unproven is how the dioxin worked its way into humans. Schecter suspects it accumulates in the fatty tissues of fish and water fowl, both of which are important local food sources. Vietnam has not allowed Schecter to analyze food samples.

Even without those laboratory results, Schecter and other epidemiologists say they recommend supplying residents near the Bien Hoa hotspot with clean food and water. Then, contaminated sediments and soils can be removed.

Scientists said the hotspot could serve as a test bed for public health programs and new cleanup technologies. It also could be useful in finding American servicemen and Vietnamese emigrants who were exposed during the war, they said.