Issue in Vietnam: Science Or Politics?
XUAN C. TRAN
Chairman of the Board of Directors
American Vietnamese Science and Technology Society
States-Vietnam Scientific Conference on Human Health and
Environmental Effects of Agent Orange/Dioxin, a
four-day landmark scientific conference in Hanoi involving
Vietnamese and US government scientists and international
experts, quietly came to an uneasy end on March
6, 2002. The reasons appear to be the Vietnamese
government efforts to turn it into a politic conference to serve
its own agenda. In fact, the Dioxin issue has been covered by
Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of the Vietnamese Communist
Party, in its political section.
In July 2001,
the governments of Vietnam and the United States agreed to
organize a conference that would bring together experts
throughout the world to provide a broad assessment of the data
available on the health and environmental effects of Agent
Orange/Dioxin, to identify future research directions, and to
provide a foundation for future cooperative research projects
and funding. The preset goals of this conference include
(1) exchange of current scientific information on the
health and environmental effects of Agent Orange/Dioxins,
(2) exchange of current scientific information on
remediation measures to reduce exposures to Agent Orange/Dioxins
in humans and the environment, and
(3) examination of the current state of knowledge and
identification of future research.
It was also agreed that the conference
would be opened to all interested parties including invited
speakers and discussants, independent scientists,
representatives from non-profit organizations, and journalists.
striving to achieve the conference goals, the Vietnamese
government launched a campaign aiming at its own goals.
The primary goal is to make money by either reviving the issue
of compensation/reparation with help from Messrs. Tom Corey and
Paul Sutton of the Vietnam Veterans of America or by threatening
to file a class-action lawsuit in the United States. Although
some US veterans have received some compensation for diseases
associated with Dioxin exposure, the compensation was a
political decision made by President Clinton and the US
government scientists have not recognized a causal effect.
US-Vietnam relations were normalized in 1995 after Vietnam
dropped claims war reparations or compensation. The secondary
goal is to make sure that Dioxin is only present at
concentrations desired by the Vietnamese government with help
from Dr. Arnold Schecter of the UT-Houston School of Public
Health in Dallas, Texas.
As a result, abstracts, summaries, and even
titles and presenters for the Vietnamese presentations were not
submitted to the organizing committee of the conference on time.
During the conference, US scientists indicated that the
Vietnamese assertion that the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange
is to blame for generations of birth defects and other diseases
is questionable and that Vietnam's researches need to be
reviewed and replicated. It is highly possible that
international journalists were prohibited from attending the
conference because the Vietnamese government does not want to
expose a lack of scientific information as well as an inadequate
state of knowledge relating to the cause and effect of the
Dioxin exposure in Vietnam.
As a scientific organization, the American
Vietnamese Science and Technology Society (VAST) has deeply
concerned about the environmental pollution in Vietnam,
especially pollution from persistent organic pollutants such as
Dioxin, insecticides, pesticides, and other agricultural and
industrial chemicals. We believe the environmental pollution in
Vietnam should be addressed properly and adequately in order to
protect the public health and the natural environment. That
point of view has been shared by scientists including Dr.
Christopher Portier of the National Institute of Environmental
We believe that Agent Orange victims of the
Ranch Hand operation, either Vietnamese or American, deserve
compensation, but scientific evidence is required to determine
if their diseases were actually caused by Agent Orange. We agree
with Ambassador Raymond Burghardt that determination of the
impact of Agent Orange after so long would be
"extraordinarily complex" and had to take into account
genetic environmental, viral and nutritional factors. It is more
complicated because of the presence of many other carcinogens
and teratogens in the Vietnam environment today. We hope that
the needed scientific evidence would be established with the
humanitarian assistance from international communities,
especially the United States, and the sincere cooperation from
the Vietnamese government.
The fact that the majority of the so-called
Agent Orange victims are children and teenagers suggests that
they are likely impacted by more recent chemicals other than
Dioxin in Agent Orange, whose usage was stopped more than 30
years ago. These chemicals include tens
thousand tons of insecticides and pesticides imported legally
and illegally to boost agricultural production after the
“reform” since the mid 1980’s and several
hundreds thousand tons of DDT imported from the former Soviet
Union to fight malaria in the early 1990’s. In
1989, Dr. Schecter detected extremely high concentrations of DDT
in breast milk samples from South Vietnam, and the DDT
concentrations still remained at the same magnitude in 1999.
Using the California drinking water standards as a basis, DDT
was 80,000 times higher while Dioxin was only 3 times higher in
1999. We are very concerned about the DDT contamination in
Vietnam because DDT, which is one of the “dirty dozen” the
Stockholm Convention agreed to eliminate in May 2001, has
similar environmental and health effects as Dioxin.
Unfortunately, Vietnam has been selected by the United Nations
Environmental Programme as one of nine case studies in the world
to study potential impacts of the dirty dozen persistent organic
pollutants. We hope the Vietnam case study will succeed.
Although a lot of politics were played
before, during, and after the scientific conference in Hanoi,
valuable scientific data and information were provided or
discussed by scientists around the world. We appreciate the
effort and contribution of these scientists. We also appreciate
the US-Vietnam Cooperative Research Program of the National
Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for its efforts to
convey any available information relating to the conference to
all interested parties around the world through its website at www.niehs.nih.gov/external/usvcrp.
We are looking forward to seeing the complete abstracts of the
papers presented by the Vietnamese scientists at the conference
posted on this website.