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April 23, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 13




global perspective U.S. has double standards on chemical weapons

by Thomas C. Fox, publisher of NCR

HANOI -- Headlines here this week focused on a new report that U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries sprayed much more Agent Orange over Vietnam than earlier estimates suggested.

A study by Columbia University public health researchers expands by about 1.82 million gallons the amount of Agent Orange and other defoliants used to thin the jungles of South Vietnam during the war years. Much of this increase is attributed to spraying that occurred before 1965. Until then, the defoliants used had a much higher concentration of a known cancer-causing chemical called dioxin. So the new study doubles the estimate of how much dioxin was sprayed in Vietnam.

It has taken more than a quarter of a century for this vital information to become public. On April 18, the Vietnam government officially called on the United States to uphold its moral responsibility to help victims of Agent Orange following the completion of the Columbia University study. "It is a critical and humanitarian task to deal with these consequences," Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said.

Seen from Hanoi, there is a special irony to the timing of this report. It came the same day that the United States announced it was sending a team of 1,000 to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, among them chemical weapons.

The primary pretext for the war against Iraq was to rid it of weapons of mass destruction and as of April 20 they had not been found. Yet, the United States has used its own chemical weapons and they have caused untold thousands of deaths, illnessess and deformities and the same intensity of discovery has been totally absent since the end of the war in 1975. When it comes to so-called "unconventional" weapons the United States, it seems, maintains a hypocritical double standard.

The scientists reached the new estimate using data from specific spraying missions, information that wasn't previously analyzed. Comparing the mission logs to village resettlement activities, they estimated that more than 4 million Vietnamese men, women and children probably were exposed to dioxin in the spraying. The military deployed defoliants from airplanes, helicopters, boats and backpacks.

A precise accounting of how much plant-killing chemicals were used during the war, and where, could help public health researchers better understand the impact of dioxin, says Jeanne Mager Stellman, a Columbia University chemist and leader of the study.

Although the spraying is long past, dioxin persists in the environment and is still entering the food supply in Vietnam, says Dr. Arnold Schecter, an environmental health expert at the University of Texas-Houston School of Public Health.

"The people getting contaminated, whether Vietnamese or American veterans, are more likely to be those who are eating contaminated foods, which we're finding right now," Schecter says. "The spray records are very valuable as a starting point, but the bottom line is: Where does [dioxin] get into people and how high were the levels?"

Earlier estimates reckoned that between 1962 and 1971, U.S.-led forces sprayed 18 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Army also sprayed smaller quantities of other "Agents," including Pink, Blue and Purple, to clear the lush region, which included Laos and Cambodia.

When will the US chemical weapons we know we used in warfare get the same intensity of interest as those our government officials feared the government of Saddam Hussein might have amassed for possible usage?

The report on the findings appears in the April 17 issue of Nature. You can read it online at

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