DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

Masako Sakata's documentary Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem examines the effect of exposure to the chemical compound known as Agent Orange, used as an herbicide and defoliant during the Vietnam War, through two interrelated narratives. The subject of the first is Greg Davis, an American soldier stationed in Vietnam in the 1960's and husband of director Sakata: she believes Davis' exposure to Agent Orange damaged his health and led to his death at the age of 54 from liver cancer. The second narrative tells of the ongoing struggle of the Vietnamese to cope with the consequences of Agent Orange exposure, including the necessity to care for deformed children born long after the United States ceased using Agent Orange in 1970.

Motivated by her husband's experience, Sakata became interested in Agent Orange and decided to travel to Vietnam to observe the effects of the chemical compound on the Vietnamese people. During the course of her trip she interviewed many people affected by Agent Orange, from peasants living in rural villages to physicians and aid workers providing care for children with severe birth defects.

Sakata found ample evidence of the human toll extracted by the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Particularly alarming was her discovery that there appears to be no statute of limitations on the harm caused by this compound. Some of the severely-disabled children she visits (children born without eyes, with missing or deformed limbs, with severe nervous system damage) are several generations removed from the last use of Agent Orange in 1970. Additionally, blood tests reveal that children in some areas of Vietnam today have high levels of dioxin (a known contaminant of Agent Orange) in their bodies, suggesting that this toxic chemical lingers on in the soil and water.

As a biostatistician and epidemiologist, I feel compelled to point out that several independent studies have failed to find a link between Agent Orange exposure and human illness. However, dioxin is a known teratogen (agent which causes birth defects) in animals. It's also a fact that in 1991 the United States government decided to grant presumptive benefits for a number of diseases believed to be affected by Agent Orange exposure. This meant that any Vietnam veteran suffering from one of the stated diseases (which included several types of cancer, chlorachne and Type II diabetes) is entitled to benefits based on the presumption that exposure to Agent Orange during their tour of duty caused the condition.

It's also worth noting that there have been no studies of the effects of long-term exposure to Agent Orange. If the U.S. government is willing to assume that a year or less of exposure can cause severe illness in American servicemen, then what are the likely consequences of years of exposure for Vietnamese unfortunate enough to live in an area where the chemical compound was heavily applied, and where the soil and water may be contaminated as well? As pointed out in this film by Philip Jones Griffiths, a photographer noted for his coverage of the Vietnam War, Vietnam provides the ideal natural experiment to study long-term exposure to Agent Orange, because some areas were heavily saturated with it while others received no exposure at all. However, this question has never been studied, and Griffiths believes he knows the reason: establishing a positive connection between Agent Orange and human illness would leave the companies who supplied it, including Dow Chemical, vulnerable to lawsuits which could result in the awarding of damages totaling millions of dollars.

In the mean time, the Vietnamese cope as best they can. Vietnam is a poor country (the per capita income is just over $800 annually, according to the International Monetary Fund) which must make difficult decisions about where to spend their resources: one result is that many children with disabilities receive only custodial care. The families Sakata visits make extraordinary efforts to care for their children, but the demands of caring for a severely handicapped child (or several) places extreme strain on families already engaged in a daily struggle for existence.

One bright spot in this picture is the Peace Village associated with Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), which cares for children with dioxin-related disabilities, and provides them with education and job training. However, such efforts are but a drop in the bucket: the Village can only accommodate about 100 children. Hospital director Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong has first-hand knowledge both of the difficult life most persons with disability will face in Vietnam, and of the limited resources available to serve them. These realities, which are clearly portrayed in Agent Orange, should be considered when interpreting Dr. Nguyen's statement that she encourages doctors and midwives to use ultrasound to detect deformed fetuses early in a pregnancy and have them aborted, because they represent a burden their families, and Vietnamese society, cannot absorb. Sakata does not place a value judgment on Dr. Nguyen's statement; instead her film has provided the context in which it should be interpreted.

Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem is distributed by First Run/Icarus Films. Further information is available from the company web site http://www.frif.com/new2008/agen.html

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