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Agent Orange

CHILDREN OF APOCALYPSE

In Vietnam it seems plain that Agent Orange left a legacy of cancers, miscarriages and birth defects

BY ANTHONY SPAETH

First came the American planes, droning low in the Vietnamese skies. Their target was not the enemy Vietcong but the lush jungle that hid them. The planes' payload: a potent defoliant called Agent Orange. ''Just after they sprayed, everything seemed twice as alive,'' recalls Dang Sung, a physician in southern Vietnam. ''Then it all turned brown and died.''


The final Agent Orange raid on Vietnam took place in 1970; the defoliated areas have begun to bloom again. But 19 years after war's end, it seems plain that Agent Orange is killing and maiming human beings -- something it was never intended to do. The apparent toxic fallout from those clouds of herbicide is a crop of human miseries -- including cancers, miscarriages and birth defects -- that may persist for decades. Says Dr. Hoang Dinh, who heads a Vietnamese committee researching Agent Orange: ''We think this will last three generations,'' possibly longer if chromosomal damage is also involved.


Agent Orange is a pitiless, ongoing executioner -- not only to the Vietnamese who lived around the 1.3 million hectares where it was used and to the thousands of U.S. servicemen who believe they were harmed; it could also threaten the children and grandchildren of both sets of victims.


The risk seems clear but has not been incontrovertibly established. In a much anticipated 2,000-page report last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that dioxin, the poison in Agent Orange, probably causes cancer and may be linked to other health problems including failed embryo development and immune-system disorders. The agency's investigation was spurred by the discovery of dioxin in U.S. fish, meat and dairy products, largely as a by-product of industrial processes. The report calls for greater study of how the poison affects humans -- after 12 years of modest and, according to critics, botched efforts by Washington to examine Vietnam veterans and workers contaminated in industrial accidents.

 
But perhaps the best place for such research is the region where dioxin once rained from the skies. ''The situation in Vietnam is tragically ideal,'' says retired Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the commander of U.S. Navy operations in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, who ordered much of the spraying of Agent Orange along Vietnamese waterways. ''We know exactly what was sprayed and exactly what villages were there.'' Last week Zumwalt visited Vietnam for the first time since the war, touring to see the human damage inflicted by Agent Orange. In the village of Thanh Xuan near Hanoi, he was introduced to 70 handicapped children, most of whose fathers had been sprayed during combat in the south. It was a trip with great personal meaning to Zumwalt: he believes two of his family members were also victims of Agent Orange. His son Elmo Zumwalt III, a Navy lieutenant who commanded a river-patrol boat in Vietnam, died in 1988 of Hodgkin's disease and a rare lymphoma at the age of 43. In turn, Elmo III's son Russell, 17, has severe learning disabilities, which Admiral Zumwalt attributes to chromosomal damage wrought by the father's Agent Orange exposure.


Scientists seeking a direct causal link between dioxin and the health problems that swirl in its wake have so far failed to demonstrate how and at exactly what levels of exposure the chemical causes human cancers to develop. New advances in molecular biology may help establish that connection. But while the smoking gun is still missing, some researchers find the circumstantial evidence convincing. Says Dr. Arnold Schecter, a dioxin specialist who traveled with Admiral Zumwalt in Vietnam last week: ''I think there is no doubt among those of us who work in the dioxin field that dioxin can cause cancer.''


If visits to the hospitals of southern Vietnam are any proof, dioxin appears responsible for a plethora of tragic health catastrophes. Blood tests show that levels of the substance in southern Vietnamese women are high. Compared with their counterparts in the north, they have 10 times as many miscarriages and twice as many abnormal births. In Song Be province, just north of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) -- a center of Agent Orange use -- patients have shown a pattern of disturbed immune systems, along with high rates of hepatitis, liver cancer and tuberculosis. Dr. Le Cao Dai, a leading Vietnamese expert on birth defects, says three provinces outside Ho Chi Minh City reported 30 pairs of Siamese twins in just five years. Under normal circumstances, says Dr. Dai, the entire country could expect only one set of Siamese twins in 10 years.


Agent Orange, named for a distinguishing orange stripe on its steel drums, was one of a range of herbicides used for nine years in what was formerly South Vietnam. The chemicals it contained had long been used as agricultural herbicides in the U.S. But the shipments that went to the military were contaminated with higher than usual levels of dioxin -- one of the most potent poisons known to man -- during the manufacturing process. In all more than 42 million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed on Vietnam, and they contained an estimated total of 170 kg of dioxin. A few millionths of a gram is enough to kill a laboratory animal.

 
By the late 1970s, U.S. veterans began to suffer strange health problems, for which they blamed Agent Orange. A class action against seven chemical companies that manufactured the defoliant was settled in 1984 for $180 million. More than 230,000 veterans originally requested Agent Orange physicals from the Department of Veterans Affairs, though only 38,000 claims have been approved thus far from the settlement fund.


In Vietnam during the '70s, health problems were also turning up in the sprayed areas -- and on a far greater scale. U.S. servicemen were rotated out of the countryside and most of their food was imported from the U.S. In contrast, the Vietnamese continued to live with the chemical, which remains in soil and water for seven to 12 years. The fish they ate had high concentrations of dioxin. Even unsprayed areas were contaminated when monsoon rains flushed the chemical into streams that traveled for miles.


Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, director of the Tu Du maternity hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, was one of the first to notice something wrong. ''We were witnessing birth defects every day,'' she recalls, along with steadily increasing reports of cancers. Agent Orange had a way of affecting mothers, fetuses -- and even healthy offspring. In women exposed to dioxin, the poison travels to the milk ducts. An uncountable number of southern Vietnamese mothers have poisoned their children by breast-feeding them. Those babies grew into the second generation of victims, epitomized by Le Ngoc Thiet, 20, and Ta Thi Hoa, 27, roommates in the Tu Du maternity hospital. Both women came from areas that were heavily sprayed before their birth. They seemed normal in childhood. But as adults, both miscarried fetuses that had degenerated into formless, spongy masses, a condition called hydatid mole that now affects nearly four of every 100 pregnant women at the hospital. Both Thiet and Hoa have been diagnosed with cancer of the uterus and have undergone hysterectomies.


In the children's center of Tu Du hospital, a dozen children spend their days watching television. Most have only half-formed arms and legs. Nguyen Phuc, 3, is missing his left forearm, lower jaw and tongue. He cannot speak. ''He is very bright,'' says one of the nurses who care for him. ''He knows what you are trying to tell him.'' Nearby, Tran Thi Hoa, 7, clutches a pink plastic rooster. Her left arm and both her legs are stumps. ''Most of the parents love these children,'' says Pham Viet Thanh, an obstetrician at the hospital. ''They can't keep them at home because they would be treated like monstrosities in their villages.''


In a second-floor room of the child-health center in Song Be province, eight large glass jars contain the true monstrosities. The specimens preserved in formaldehyde range from grimacing Siamese twins to fetuses with half-formed limbs, collapsed skulls, deformed jaws and twisted pelvises and spines. Nearly every maternity hospital in Vietnam has a similar museum of horrors.


A 1989 survey in southern Vietnam by a Japanese researcher found that 6% of schoolchildren randomly sampled had congenital malformations, an extremely high rate. If dioxin has the power to damage human chromosomes, which has not been proved, several more generations of Agent Orange victims can be expected.
Dioxin and Agent Orange have become potent symbols: for the Vietnamese, of the continuing destructiveness of a poisonous war; for American veterans, of their own sense of abandonment and betrayal by their countrymen; for environmentalists, of the acute dangers lurking in common industrial processes. Admiral Zumwalt, who says he would order the use of Agent Orange again because it saved thousands of American lives in wartime, last week urged that the U.S. make something out of the tragedy it caused by sponsoring extensive research in the southern Vietnamese hospitals.

 Vietnam cannot afford the research; in the past both Hanoi and Washington have been reluctant to dedicate funds or technicians. But, Zumwalt noted, no one would have walked away from Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the same way. ''We would have been more successful if we started, as in Japan, right after the tragedy,'' he says now. ''But it is never too late.''
 

Reported by William Dowell/Ho Chi Minh City Copyright 1994 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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