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BOSTON — U.S. President Bill Clinton’s historic visit to Vietnam this week conjures up troubling memories from the past, but it also draws attention to a Vietnam War-related public-health disaster that continues to plague both Vietnamese and Americans: Agent Orange contamination.

Vietnamese researchers claim that between 800,000 and 1 million Vietnamese suffer Agent Orange-linked health problems, including cancer and severe birth defects.

In the United States, meanwhile, controversy still rages over the effects of the dioxin-laden defoliant on Vietnam War veterans and their children. Veterans fought for years to win compensation for a range of health problems associated with Agent Orange exposure, including Hodgkin’s disease and respiratory and prostate cancers. Veterans whose children have spina bifida are also eligible for benefits.

Researchers in the U.S. continue to find new connections between Agent Orange and health problems. Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force released a study documenting a link between Agent Orange and diabetes.

Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health who has studied Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam since 1984, insists that U.S. funding for Agent Orange research in Vietnam would enable scientists to answer questions that Vietnamese and U.S. veterans have about the deadly defoliant.

Schecter also believes that adequately funded Agent Orange research in Vietnam would lead to a better understanding of the health effects of dioxin — the substance in Agent Orange that is internationally recognized as a carcinogen in humans.

According to a U.S. EPA report released this year, the risk of getting cancer from dioxin exposure is significantly greater than what the agency had previously thought — as high as one in 100 for Americans whose diets are high in meat and dairy products.

Dioxin is also known to affect the human endocrine, reproductive and immune systems.

People living in the industrialized world are exposed to dioxin due to releases of it into the environment by sources such as incinerators and paper mills. The cancer-causing substance then gets into our food supply by contaminating soil, silt and plants that are ingested by fish and animals. Humans then consume those fish and animals, as well as contaminated dairy products.

But the movement of dioxin through the food chain doesn’t stop there. Mothers can pass it along to embryos and fetuses through the umbilical cord, and to newborns through breast-feeding.

Last year, Schecter led a research team in Vietnam that took blood samples from 20 residents of the city of Bien Hoa who live near the site of a former U.S. air base where a spill of 28,350 liters of Agent Orange occurred in 1970. Nineteen of the 20 residents had elevated levels of dioxin. One woman had the highest level recorded in Vietnam since the war.

Schecter says the high dioxin levels — which were found in several people born after the war — were most likely the result of people eating contaminated fish from a lake near the site of the former air base.

Unfortunately for the people of Vietnam, Agent Orange “hot spots” such as Bien Hoa, with their high levels of dioxin contamination and large numbers of people exposed over long periods of time, are the best laboratories in the world for studying the effects of dioxin, Schecter says.

There’s growing support in the U.S. for government backing of Agent Orange research in Vietnam. In 1998, retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who served as chief of U.S. Naval Operations during the Vietnam War, called on the U.S. to support such research. In Congress, Democrats Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois and Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota have led the fight to get funding for research.

Schecter says the Vietnamese government also wants the U.S. to get behind Agent Orange research in contaminated parts of the country, but it doesn’t want its people to be seen simply as guinea pigs. That’s why Vietnam is also seeking humanitarian assistance to help those suffering the effects of Agent Orange, as well as aid to clean up contaminated sites such as Bien Hoa.

It’s crucial that the U.S. and Vietnam reach an agreement soon to conduct joint Agent Orange research, Schecter says. If leaders on the two sides drag their feet on the issue, he argues, scientists could lose their best opportunity to learn about a highly dangerous substance that affects not only Vietnamese and U.S. veterans, but people all over the industrialized world.

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