Dealing with the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam

This blog post first appeared on SFGate’s “City Brights” blog on Feb. 26, 2011.

By Yumi Wilson

Bob Edgar

Bob Edgar speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Photo by Steven Chin

A national grant maker in New York and a former congressman from Pennsylvania came to San Francisco on Feb. 25 to explain how Americans can help “end the war” in Vietnam.

“War doesn’t end when the last soldier leaves,” said Bob Edgar, a former politician turned president and CEO of a citizen lobbying group called Common Cause. It’s time, he added, to move past the “blame game” and take part in a humanitarian effort to help the people still suffering in Vietnam.

Edgar made his comments at the Commonwealth Club, which hosted an hour-long discussion titled, “Addressing the Legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam.” He was joined on stage by Charles Bailey, a Ford Foundation director who helped to establish Ford’s Special Initiative on Agent Orange/Dioxin.

The event was moderated by San Francisco State University Journalism Professor Jon Funabiki, a former Ford Foundation grant maker who now runs the Vietnam Reporting Project.

Bailey, who spent a decade in Vietnam for Ford, spoke passionately about the need for philanthropists, politicians, community leaders and other concerned citizens to help Vietnam recover from the devastating effects of Agent Orange.

“There is this lingering legacy of the past,” Bailey said, adding that the spraying and storage of Agent Orange during the war and after has adversely affected millions of people. “The bottom line,” he added, is that people who enduring the spraying or live around “hot spots” need help.

“Agent Orange and some of the other herbicides (used during the war) were contaminated with dioxin, a highly toxic and persistent organic pollutant,” according to a declaration put forth by the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin. “Dioxin (2,3,7, 8-tetrachlorop-dibenzo-dioxin, or TCDD) has been linked by the U.S. Institutes of Medicine to cancers, diabetes, and nerve and heart disease among people directly and indirectly exposed, and to spina bifida among their offspring.”

The U.S. Veterans Administration recognizes a total of 15 diseases and one birth defect related to exposure to Agent Orange, the report said.

Last year, U.S. veterans of Vietnam received nearly $2 billion in disability payments related to Agent Orange, according to a November California Report story by K. Oanh Ha. The same cannot be said for any of the people in Vietnam.

As many as three million Vietnamese adults and children have suffered “adverse health effects, congenital and development defects,” the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group noted in their declaration.

The U.S. Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin has recommended a Plan of Action to help address the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The plan would cost approximately $300 million and be implemented over 10 years. “The U.S. government should play a key role in meeting these costs,” according to the declaration.

Edgar, who went to Vietnam as part of a humanitarian effort last year, said he will be going again in March.

The reason to keep going back to Vietnam, Edgar explained, is for people to see firsthand the beauty of a people and land struggling to recover from the devastation of war — and perhaps take some action. He told the crowd several times: “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”

Yumi Wilson went to Vietnam last summer as part of the Vietnam Reporting Project, an initiative led by Professor Funabiki and funded by the Ford Foundation.The VRP’s fellows have won numerous awards and praise for their stories in Vietnam.

About yumi wilson

Yumi Wilson is an award-winning journalist whose been work has been published in the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, SF Gate, Hokubei Mainichi,, MAMM magazine and the online edition of Hyphen magazine. She is the editor of her own news site, SF News Hub, a blogger for City Brights and personal essay editor for Hyphen magazine. Yumi teaches reporting, news writing, opinion and literary journalism at San Francisco State University.

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