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Battle to heal wounds of Agent Orange continues

Posted February 16, 2011 9:46 p.m. EST
Updated February 19, 2011 9:14 a.m. EST

— More than 30 years after the bullets stopped flying in Vietnam, a battle rages to help people still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.

Agent Orange was an herbicide, later discovered to be contaminated with the toxic chemical dioxin, that the U.S. military sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam to hamper guerrilla operations.

Lingering health and environmental problems from Agent Orange affect an estimated 3 million Vietnamese, including 150,000 children, experts said during a panel discussion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Wednesday.

“If you use herbicides to kill the trees and shrubs, it exposes the tropical soil to tropical rains and degradation, and it’s very hard to get anything to grow again,” said Charles Bailey, director of the Ford Foundation's Special Initiative on Agent Orange/Dioxin.

Research has shown an increased number of Vietnamese children have been born with severe birth defects and Down syndrome since the war ended in 1975, panelists said, although the genetic effects of Agent Orange are still debated.

“Wars aren’t over when the last soldiers leave the battlefield,” said Bob Edgar, president of the nonprofit Common Cause, which is working on the Agent Orange issue in Vietnam.

As a congressman at the end of the Vietnam War, Edgar pushed legislation to help veterans impacted by Agent Orange. Now, his focus is on the people of that country.

Edgar said he has seen people there affected by "unbelievable birth defects, spina bifida, cleft pallets and hair lips" and other facial disfigurements.

During the war, 20 million gallons of Agent Orange destroyed some 5 million acres in Vietnam. The chemical dioxin contaminated the herbicide seeped into the soil and water supply.

Researcher Thao Van Thai said she was touched by the struggle of Vietnamese families who she encountered last year while documenting the after-effects of Agent Orange.

“They’re not caring about the past, and that’s what moved me," Thai said. "They’re worried about their own lives and trying to move on."

Groups, including the Ford Foundation and Common Cause, aim to raise $30 million each year over the next decade to clean contaminated Agent Orange hot spots and provide health services for families and children.

"Rather than continue the 40-year acrimony over the science, we're simply saying: This is a humanitarian issue, and we can do something about it," Bailey said.