Mothers hope U.S.-Vietnam Agent Orange efforts help

HANOI Sat Jun 16, 2007 11:21pm EDT

1 of 3. Nhu Hong Phong, 24, lies in a wooden cot in the front room of his parents' house in Hanoi June 16, 2007. Nhu suffers from brain damage and Vietnamese doctors believe he is a victim of exposure to dioxin or 'agent orange' passed down the generations. Nhu's father served in the Vietnam War and spent time briefly at two places now identified by scientists as hot spots for the defoliant sprayed during the war. On Monday, a U.S. appeals court will hear arguments on whether Vietnamese plaintiffs may sue 32 U.S. manufacturers of 'agent orange' defoliant sprayed by the Americans for a decade up to 1971. Vietnam's President Nguyen Minh Triet will arrive in the U.S. for a state visit from June 18-23.

Credit: Reuters/Kham

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HANOI (Reuters) - The lives of two neighbors lying disfigured and brain-damaged in small Hanoi houses will not be changed by a U.S. court hearing on Monday about victims of war-time dioxin, or "agent orange".

But in different ways, the mothers of 10-year-old Pham Duc Duy and 24-year-old Nhu Hong Phong say a lawsuit against U.S. chemical manufacturers and other efforts to deal with a war legacy could help future generations.

"No one can require the U.S. or anybody else to pay, but people in the world can stop the production of these chemicals that are used as weapons," Nguyen Thi Tu said as her son Phong watched from the floor of a spare wooden cot in their front room.

"It is better to die immediately than to die this way," said Tu, who earns 2 million dong ($124) a month as a night-time cleaner at a school.

Phong, his back bent and his left arm shortened, stands up by leaning against the cot railing. He makes unintelligible noises and does not understand when he is spoken to, his parents said.

In 1975, the final year of the U.S. war in Vietnam, Phong's father Nhu Van Phuc spent time at two places now identified by scientists as "hot spots" for dioxin, a small compound within the "agent orange" herbicide that is one of the most toxic known.

The United States maintains there is no scientifically proven link between the wartime spraying and more than three million people Vietnam says are disabled by dioxin over three generations.

When President George W. Bush visited Hanoi last November, he and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet agreed to cooperate in cleaning up "hot spots" at three bases where the Americans stored toxins. They are expected to discuss the issue again when Triet visits Washington this week.

Washington in late May earmarked $3 million for health and environment work.

Separately, the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange has tried to put more than 30 U.S. companies that manufactured the defoliant on trial. Two years ago, a U.S. federal court turned down the case.

The plaintiffs are appealing that ruling in a U.S. appeals court in New York on Monday, but it could be months before the judges announce any decision.

The U.S. and the South Vietnam government it supported sprayed an estimated 70 million liters of herbicide from 1961 to 1971 to defoliate the jungles where communist soldiers hid.

CLEAN-UP

Clean-up work could begin by October at a site next to Danang airport in central Vietnam, U.S. officials and a U.S. contractor said. The others are Phu Cat in south-central Binh Dinh province and Bien Hoa in southern Dong Nai province.

Hatfield Consultants environmental research company of West Vancouver, Canada, has measured dioxin in the soil hundreds of times higher than internationally acceptable levels in or near these three places.

The families of Duy and Phong live in housing mainly reserved for military families next to the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi.

In another small room down the lane from Phong's house, Nguyen Thi Thanh Van gently cradles her son Duy as she sits on a straw mat.

The child's face is contorted and his arms and legs bent and stiffened at odd angles. He likes being tickled and his aunt says he responds to soccer on TV.

Relatives said Duy's grandfather was a war-time soldier who was bedridden for the last 10 years of his life and died in 1992.

Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet arrives in New York for a six-day visit to the United States on the same day as the court hearing.

He is the first post-war communist head of state of Vietnam to be welcomed by Washington.

Duy's mother Van says she would like the president "to tell the American people about the serious effects of dioxin agent orange not only in one generation, but many generations."

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