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Since 2006, at the request of the Vietnamese government, the United States has been focusing its Agent Orange work on Danang. Tests taken by Hatfield found extremely high levels of dioxin -- up to 400 times accepted international limits -- in soil samples taken near the site and in the blood of a few dozen people who lived near a contaminated lake on the old airbase, where they often went fishing.
Working with Vietnamese officials, the U.S. government has sealed off the site to prevent further leakage of dioxin. They are now seeking ways to decontaminate the site, which is likely to cost millions of dollars.
More than two-thirds of the U.S. money allocated so far has been devoted to cleaning up the Danang hotspot, with just $2 million set aside for health programs to serve disabled people in the area.
Since 1989, Michalak said, the United States has spent $46 million to help Vietnamese with disabilities, but it does not keep track of how many of the beneficiaries have illnesses associated with Agent Orange.
"We just think it's the humanitarian thing to do, it's the right thing, and it helps to improve relations between the two countries," Michalak said.
The current U.S.-Vietnam efforts to enhance cooperation on the issue stand in marked contrast to their disagreements seven years ago, when the two sides attempted to conduct a study of birth defects in children whose mothers were exposed to Agent Orange.
The study fell apart amid bickering and finger-pointing. When the Vietnamese and American scientists failed to agree on how to design the $1 million project, the U.S. National Institute on Environmental and Health Sciences withdrew funding.
A leaked U.S. embassy memo written in 2003 captures the bitterness and suspicion that divided the two sides.
Vietnam's claims about Agent Orange were "grossly exaggerated and unsupported by any objective measure," the memo said, dismissing Vietnam's concerns as a "propaganda campaign" to morally indict the U.S. government and win financial compensation.
The memo, circulated in Hanoi by a former embassy staffer, was omitted from more than 100 pages of State Department documents released to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request last year. Those documents, which were heavily edited, also show that the U.S. was deeply skeptical of Vietnam's assertions about Agent Orange.
The U.S. has shifted its tone sharply since the 2003 memo, but it has not changed its basic position: current science does not support Vietnamese claims about Agent Orange. No exhaustive studies have been done in Vietnam, where available records on birth defects are incomplete, U.S. officials say, making comparisons of populations difficult.
Vietnam says its own studies show that the rate of birth defects in areas sprayed with Agent Orange is four times higher than in areas that weren't sprayed, and the incidence of certain cancers was 10 times as high.
Le Ke Son, one of Vietnam's top environmental officials, said countries around the world have concluded that dioxin is one the most toxic chemicals on earth.
"Not one of them would say dioxin is not harmful to people," Son said.
David Carpenter, the U.S. scientist who won funding for the ill-fated 2003 study, agreed with that assessment. He planned to test 800 Vietnamese children to see if Agent Orange exposure in mothers increased their chances of being born with one of three kinds of birth defects.
Many of the birth defects Vietnamese have attributed to Agent Orange may have other causes, Carpenter said, but there is little doubt that the herbicide is to blame for some.
"Dioxin is just a horrible chemical," Carpenter said. "There are a variety of factors that contribute to birth defects, and dioxin is certainly one of them. One need not be a rocket scientist to come to that conclusion."
Gai and her husband, Nguyen Van Bong, remember watching American planes dump their poisonous cargo on the jungles near their home in Cam Tuyen, where they scratch out a living from their tiny family farm.
"We used to see white clouds coming from the planes," Bong said. "We ate fish and drank water from nearby rivers and streams."
The couple is convinced that dioxin is to blame for the fact that their two daughters now have curved limbs, spines and fingers. Thuyet, 16, shrieks day and night, her screams reverberating through the family's two-room home.
"I barely sleep at night," Gai said. "I have to keep an eye on them all the time."
The girls are usually up by 3 a.m., when Gai boils water to bathe them.
Then the 51-year-old mother dresses her daughters and lifts them into wheelchairs. They watch while she washes their clothes in a stream.
Three times a day, she performs physical therapy on the girls for 20 minutes, stretching and massaging their misshapen limbs to ease their pain.
"If I don't do the therapy, Thuyet would scream even more," Gai said. "I sing to them each time before I massage them. It calms them."
Once a month, a village volunteer comes to help for a half-hour. Other than that, Gai and Bong are on their own.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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