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2000-01-06

Apocalypse Still: Vietnamese Population Still Suffering From Effects of Agent Orange

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Retired Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., who was commander of U.S. naval operations during part of the Vietnam War, died early on Sunday at the age of 79. He was commander of naval operations in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. [includes rush transcript]

During the Vietnam War, he ordered much of the spraying of Agent Orange along Vietnamese waterways. In later years, Zumwalt blamed the defoliant, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin, for the death from cancer of his own son, Elmo Zumwalt III.

The elder Zumwalt said he did not regret ordering the use of Agent Orange because it reduced casualties by making it difficult for the enemy to hide and find food.

More recently, he had supported efforts to add a plaque to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington honoring veterans who died from ailments related to Agent Orange. On a 1994 visit to Vietnam after his retirement from the Navy, Zumwalt proposed joint research on Agent Orange’s effects.

Twenty five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has still not accepted responsibility for the devastating effects of Agent Orange. The U.S. military dumped a total of 11.2 million tons of the defoliant on Vietnam in the course of the war. Thousands of American servicemen were contaminated by the dioxin in Agent Orange after remaining in the area for a year, but what has happened to the millions of Vietnamese who remained there, and who have been exposed to dioxin over the course of 25 years?

Guest:

  • Bob Dreyfuss, contributing writer for Mother Jones who wrote the piece "Apocalypse Still" about the catastrophic effects of the 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange the U.S. military dumped on Vietnam in the course of the war. Speaking from Alexandria, Virginia.
  • Dr. Arnold Schecter, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health (Dallas campus). He has researched the effects of Agent Orange for years and has written over a hundred publications on the subject. He has also been to Vietnam about 15 times to study Agent Orange contamination in the country, and organized Adm. Zumwalt’s trip there in 1994.
  • Steven J. Milloy, Editor of junkscience.com who is associated with the Cato Institute.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Retired Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., who was commander of US naval operations during part of the Vietnam War, died early on Sunday at the age of seventy-nine. During the Vietnam War, he ordered much of the spraying of Agent Orange along Vietnamese waterways. In later years, Zumwalt blamed the defoliant, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin, for the death from cancer of his own son, Elmo Zumwalt III.

The elder Zumwalt said he did not regret ordering the use of Agent Orange, because it reduced casualties, he said, by making it difficult for the enemy to hide and find food. More recently, he has supported efforts to add a plaque to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington honoring veterans who died from ailments related to Agent Orange.

In a 1994 visit to Vietnam after his retirement from the Navy, Zumwalt proposed joint research on Agent Orange’s effects. His visit made him the most senior wartime US officer to visit Vietnam since the end of the war.

It has been almost twenty-five years since the war’s end. The US military dumped a total of more than eleven million tons of the defoliant Agent Orange on Vietnam in the course of that war, so named because it was shipped to Vietnam in fifty-five gallon drums marked with an orange stripe.

Thousands of American servicemen were contaminated by the dioxin in Agent Orange after remaining in the area for a year, but what’s happened to the millions of Vietnamese who remain there and who have been exposed to Vietnam over the last quarter of a century?

We’re joined right now by Bob Dreyfuss, who recently spent time in Vietnam looking at the effects of Agent Orange and wrote a cover story for this month’s issue of Mother Jones called "Apocalypse Still."

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bob Dreyfuss.

BOB DREYFUSS: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you found in Vietnam?

BOB DREYFUSS: Well, it’s actually been almost thirty years since the United States used Agent Orange, because in 1970 the United States stopped using the chemical after the effects on humans began to become known. Still, many of the both civilians and soldiers who were living in Vietnam at the time lived and worked and breathed in the residue of this chemical and, in some cases, during the actual spraying.

In contrast to American soldiers who served in Vietnam who, after all, drank bottled water and ate processed foods and were there for only a brief time, perhaps a year or so, the Vietnamese, you know, walked barefoot and drank the water and lived there continuously and in much, much larger numbers. Millions or perhaps tens of millions of Vietnamese were affected by this.

What’s become known in Vietnam since all of this took place is that there were a large number of illnesses, including cancers, at much higher rates among people who were living or fighting in exposed areas. And in the second generation, beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing even today, children born with birth defects, severe spinal deformities and other serious, if not crippling, birth defects, born over the last twenty-five years — obviously many of them now adult-age children, others younger — and recent research has shown that the chemical, although much of it has been washed out of the land, still, in some areas, exists in the ground, in the water, in the food chain, so that it’s still entering human life and causing effects from illnesses to birth defects even today. Mothers, through their milk, pass it on to their children. It’s in the fish and the fowl that people eat.

And where there’s some activity, let’s say construction, that might stir up this chemical which persists — that is the dioxin part of Agent Orange — persists for quite a while. What happens then is it gets back into the system and, again, causes these kinds of effects.

The amazing thing about it is that Vietnam being, first of all, preoccupied with reconstruction over the last twenty-five years, and even, in some cases, with new wars, and then second, being very poor, hasn’t been able to spend the probably tens or hundreds of millions of dollars that it would take to study where this chemical still exists. It’s very, very expensive to do the testing.

And so, in Hanoi, officials don’t even know where to begin. I mean, they have some rough idea, because they know where the chemical was sprayed, in general, and they know where former military — American military bases were, which were centers of the heaviest use and also some dumping and spills of the chemical. But in terms of being able to test the soil and the water, each test costs about $600 to $1,000. And so, to do widespread testing would be prohibitively expensive for them.

AMY GOODMAN: You mention in your piece that a State Department source told you that there’s real concern for going down the road of research around Agent Orange, because that leads to liability questions.

BOB DREYFUSS: Well, a State Department official in Hanoi tried to actually talk me out of doing the story. And then, when that obviously didn’t work, then they pretty much refused to cooperate with the story. They would like it all to go away. They’re afraid that Vietnam could come to them, probably not in a legal sense, but as part of the ongoing talks between the two countries, and start, perhaps more forcefully than they’ve done so far, ask for humanitarian or other assistance, not just for research, but to take care of the people affected by it. There are large numbers of people who get very little, if any, compensation in Vietnam for their injuries.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bob Dreyfuss, we’re also joined by Steven Milloy, editor of junkscience.com, with the Cato Institute. You’ve been in the major media talking about dioxin not being proven to be harmful to human beings.

STEVEN MILLOY: Right. The United States has spent probably more than a billion dollars researching dioxin, which is the contaminant of concern in Agent Orange. We spent that money over the last twenty-five years. There’s still no agreement that Agent Orange — or that dioxin has caused any health effects in humans, other than severe acne in people who are very highly exposed. We just haven’t seen any effects.

And if you look at the studies of Agent Orange on US servicemen, none of those studies show any health effects, even among the most highly exposed servicemen. And some of these servicemen would actually drink the Agent Orange as a rite of passage before flying their missions. We know people have been very highly exposed to Agent Orange and very highly exposed to dioxin. We don’t see the health effects that are claimed.

The birth defects that are occurring in Vietnam, for example, the spina bifida, spina bifida has many causes, one of them is lack of folic acid, which is a B vitamin. It’s quite conceivable that the birth defects in Vietnam are due to poor diet or, you know, other causes, but there’s no evidence linking them to Agent Orange.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone from Texas by Dr. Arnold Schecter, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health. He is the person who you might see in pictures of the late Admiral Zumwalt. He arranged his trip to Vietnam. What are your thoughts on JunkScience.com, and Steven Milloy’s comments that Agent Orange has no effect?

DR. ARNOLD SCHECTER: Well, let me help Mr. Milloy to understand to feel better. In 1997, the World Health Organization declared that the dioxin in Agent Orange was a definite human carcinogen. And in Volume 69, an expert committee from the United States, chaired by Dr. George Lucier of NIH, with Dr. Linda Birnbaum of EPA, and other experts present, noted the endocrine disruption that is caused by dioxin in humans, the reproductive and developmental effects.

And most recently, of course, the Institute of Medicine in its — of the National Academy of Sciences, in its Veterans in Agent Orange Study, notes those human health conditions for which there is a statistical association found between dioxin exposure in the peer-reviewed published literature, much of which is reviewed in my book, Dioxins and Health, by experts.

We now know, from the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health, two things: that dioxins have caused cancer mortality, cancer deaths, in American workers exposed to dioxin — in the article published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Marilyn Fingerhut and other NIOSH authors — and more recently NIOSH has shown that chemical workers exposed to dioxin are at higher risk of developing adult onset diabetes. The same finding has been noted in the American Ranch Hand study by the US Air Force of the higher dioxin blood levels have been — even in the general population levels, not just the ranch handers who sprayed it, and some of whom do have elevated dioxin — there is elevated risk for dioxin. That was just published by authors from the National Institute of Health and the US Air Force recently.

In addition, I would disagree with the recent comments of the gentleman from the JunkScience.com that once dioxins go into the fat, they stay there. That is not the case. They are in equilibrium with blood and other organs of the human body. We have found, for example, blood levels of dioxin elevated for thirty-five years after exposure in some workers.

The studies from the United States and Holland have demonstrated that children born to women in the general population, but with a higher level of these toxic, persistent, synthetic chemicals, the children will have certain deficits, hormone alterations, weight changes, lower IQ and other problems.

The statement that was also made recently on CNN television that Americans have higher levels of dioxin exposure than Vietnamese is not correct. In our studies and the peer-reviewed literature, which is reviewed by the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization, EPA, ATSDR of CDC, and other American and world scientific bodies at the highest level, the findings show that dioxins are causing in humans similar response to other mammals. And the recent NIH findings are that human tissue is about as sensitive as rat or mouse tissue to dioxins when it comes to enzyme induction and other effects that show sensitivity to dioxins.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Schecter and Steven Milloy, because we’ve come to the end of the program, I want to ask if you might be able to join us for a second part of this discussion tomorrow on Democracy Now! I think it’s very important to look at these issues, and I’m sure that Steven Milloy has responses. Would you both be available?

DR. ARNOLD SCHECTER: Of course.

STEVEN MILLOY: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Great. So that will be part two of our debate tomorrow, as well as part two of Charles Lewis looking at the money in politics, following the Republican debate tonight, as we’ve looked at the Democrats today.

Dr. Schechter at the University of Texas School of Public Health. Steven Milloy, Editor of JunkScience.com. And Bob Dreyfuss, who wrote the cover piece for Mother Jones magazine, "Agent Orange: 25 Years After the Fall of Saigon, the People of Vietnam Continue to Pay the Price for America’s Chemical Warfare."

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