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Agent Orange in villagers’ blood

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HANOI — Villagers living close to a former U.S. air base where there was a big spillage of the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War show elevated levels of dioxin contamination, a leading researcher says.

Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas, told Reuters the findings and previous Canadian research showed dioxin had found its way back into the food chain in at least two Agent Orange "hotspots" in Vietnam.

Schecter said he and Vietnamese scientists had taken blood samples last year from 20 villagers living close to the former U.S. air base of Bien Hoa, scene of an accidental spillage of thousands of gallons of Agent Orange in the late 1960s.

Analysis of the samples obtained this year showed 19 of the 20 had elevated levels of dioxin.

"Nineteen out of 20 really surprised us," Schecter said in an interview in Hanoi. "One woman had the highest level seen in Vietnam since the last samples were taken during the war.

"That's a 135-fold increase above the level for non-exposed Hanoi residents. It startled us, it startled my group — it's striking."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a reassessment of dioxin, concluding that it is a known carcinogen that causes cancer and deaths from cancer in humans.

However, there was the possibility of the EPA findings being contested by industry, including Agent Orange manufacturers, worried about potentially large damages settlements.

Litigation by industry had meant similar conclusions by the U.S. Public Health Service's National Toxicology Program had not been released, Schecter said.

Spraying of Agent Orange, used by the United States to deny communist guerrillas jungle cover, ended in Vietnam in 1971.

Schecter said if researchers were better funded they could map out other hotspots like Bien Hoa and see if they could be cleaned up and what could be done for people affected.

"I hope and expect from what I hear in Washington they will try to get U.S. government funding for Agent Orange research in Vietnam started this year.

"This year is the last year of the Clinton administration and we have no idea what the next administration will want to do. It must be done now, or it may never be done."

During a visit to Vietnam earlier this year, U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen called for cooperation in research into the harmful effects of Agent Orange.

Schecter, a member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the Vietnam War who has been researching Agent Orange in Vietnam since 1984, said implications of such research extended beyond Vietnam and U.S. veterans seeking compensation for the effects of contamination, to cases like the recent Belgian food scare.

"It will tell us how dioxin moves through the environment. he said. "Most people thought the dioxin from Agent Orange had just moved away, been washed away. Clearly, 30 years after the spraying ended, it's not doing that and it is being remobilised in certain hotspots and getting into people."

It could also show what levels of dioxins caused which health effects, Schecter said.

"Vietnam has the biggest dioxin contamination in the world and probably the most men women and children contaminated with dioxin. Unfortunately for Vietnam, it is probably the best laboratory in the world to study the effects of dioxin."

Schecter said that of those villagers contaminated near Bien Hoa, some were old enough to have been exposed to spraying during the war but others were born long after spraying ended.

The highest levels of contamination were among heavy fish consumers, specifically in a family that ate a lot of fish from a stream on their property downstream from the air base.

"The spillage of Agent Orange at Bien Hoa air base probably got into a waterway that goes nearby, probably contaminated silt that probably contaminated fish," Schecter said.

"We know now that Agent Orange is a human carcinogen, we know it causes endocrine disruption and we know it causes certain types of damage to children if the mother has high enough exposure," Schecter said.