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Agent Orange: helping the Vietnamese still affected

It’s hard to know where to begin a discussion of Agent Orange. The toxic herbicide was used extensively during the Vietnam War and has been at the center of several controversies both at home and abroad.

Vietnam veterans are unfortunately all-too-familiar with its poison. They returned from the war only to be ill and many of their wives suffered miscarriages or delivered children with significant birth defects. Not until Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991 did Vietnam veterans gain a presumptive service exposure to the deadly chemicals.

But the US has been slow to recognize the needs of the Vietnamese people still living with daily exposure to Agent Orange. 20 million gallons of Agent Orange covered 5 million acres (think the size of Massachusetts). Dioxin levels, linked to cancers and birth defects, in soil near heavily-sprayed sites are three hundred to four hundred times above the international limits. Worse, dioxin is slow to degrade and works its way through the ecosystem—allowing it to pass through future generations for years to come.

The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million Vietnamese have suffered health problems related to Agent Orange exposure—though the US says the number is lower and rules out some problems as due to other reasons such as malnutrition. Either way, even a cursory glance through the pictures posted with a June 16 AP article (here, but be warned they are graphic) is enough to realize that some horrors of the war are ongoing.

Agent Orange did far more than destroy the jungle cover used by communist guerilla fighters: it destroyed lives and disabled generations of Vietnamese citizens. And on June 16, in recognition of this, a United States and Vietnamese joint panel released an action plan to provide $300 million dollars to clean up the ecosystem and aid the disabled.

The United States has malingered in addressing the issue, arguing with Vietnam over the need for more conclusive research. The action plan leaves aside the issue of “who’s to blame” for particular illnesses and instead focuses on cleaning up—a project that the panel points out will be “far less costly than the Gulf oil spill that BP will have to clean up.”

Note that the action plan is not law—it is a comprehensive review of the situation and a call for action. Thus, it is unclear exactly where the $300 million would be coming from. The panel is hopeful that the US will provide at least half, with corporations and foundations and donors making up the difference. The United States has already provided $9 million since 2007, with an additional $12 million as part of a bill currently being debated in Congress.

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