Agent of Doom

Former enemies unite against the continuing fallout from deadly defoliants of the Vietnam War

"That was obviously meant as a joke. A humorous quip. I'm certain of that," an incredulous Schecter told The New York Times. It wasn't, and Carey came to regret his brazen remark. Schecter also would have regrets. He wasn't reappointed to the post later that year, possibly because of his criticisms of state actions, he says.

Nevertheless, he continued on as a professor at the university and pushed ahead with his dioxin research. Information about this class of hydrocarbon was extremely limited at that time. Studies had shown that it caused a range of cancers, immune system deficiencies, reproductive problems and other maladies in animals. Less was known about the effects on humans.

Looking at blood and fat samples from those exposed to the hazardous fallout from the fire, and comparing them with a control group, Schecter made a startling discovery: Everyone, including individuals in the comparison group, bore traces of dioxin.

Kahler, a diabetic, wonders today whether the use of Agent Orange was "worth it."
Kahler, a diabetic, wonders today whether the use of Agent Orange was "worth it."
Officials estimate that Agent Orange may be responsible for 15,000 malformed babies.
Officials estimate that Agent Orange may be responsible for 15,000 malformed babies.

"There is no such thing as an un-dioxin-exposed person living in the world today," he says.

By 1983 Schecter was presenting the results of his research in medical journals and at scientific meetings. As his profile rose, he received a call from the Vietnam Veterans of America inviting him to return with them to the old battlegrounds to study dioxin damage. Determining the extent of exposure across Vietnam would help veterans understand the effects on their own health, says Paul Sutton, chairman of the VVA's Agent Orange committee.

"You have to understand what the health effect has been on Vietnamese who have been living in the hot spots," Sutton says.

Veterans who suspected that they had grown ill from Agent Orange had not been faring well. While the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) recognized a link between the herbicide and a skin condition called chloracne, it had denied tens of thousands of claims for death and disability benefits. Science was on the VA's side. The leading study on Agent Orange to date was an ongoing examination by the air force, which found the chemical's health impacts inconclusive.

Those who believed the defoliant was responsible for a host of ills concentrated their battle on another front: a civil action against chemical companies, including giants Dow Chemical and Monsanto, which manufactured Agent Orange. But the presiding federal judge in Brooklyn took a dim view of the claims, prompting a 1984 settlement for a fraction of what the plaintiffs had sought.

With the government and industry notching success after success in containing liability, an independent scientist's study could be dangerous. Schecter was undeterred. While he says that "Vietnam might as well have been Mars" to him then, he felt he could not pass up an opportunity to go where dioxin contamination was the worst in the world.

In contrast to their U.S. counterparts, Vietnamese officials were eager to expose problems caused by chemical warfare waged by the superpower. Still, Schecter and veterans' representatives were not expecting red-carpet treatment. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam remained hostile territory in 1984, an old adversary with no formal diplomatic relations with the United States. Their airplane in Hanoi was greeted by scowling men with guns.

The two-week tour turned out to be a whirlwind of bureaucratic pageantry in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Schecter sat through tea ceremonies and tedious readings of communist policy statements. He saw hospital patients suffering from cancer. He also was guided to the countryside, where he viewed barren landscapes in place of once-lush forests, and peasants with hideously deformed babies.

What Schecter observed was typical, says Thong Nguyen, a spokeswoman at the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C. She estimates that more than one million people in her country have suffered from Agent Orange, including 150,000 babies with deformities.

"You can see that in every city in [certain] provinces in Vietnam," she says. "The victims could be the veterans or the simple people who just lived in the area at that time."

As horrific as the suffering was, Schecter was not convinced that Agent Orange was the culprit.

"Every country in the world, unfortunately, has children born with malformations," he says. He wondered if he was being used "as part of communist propaganda against our own government" and remained determined to base any conclusions on hard science.

To that end, Schecter met with several of Vietnam's foremost dioxin researchers, among them Le Cao Dai, now director of the Agent Orange Victims Fund for the Vietnam Red Cross. A small professorial type with thick glasses and unruly hair, Dai had supervised underground hospitals for wounded Vietcong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war and similar operations against the French decades earlier. Schecter immediately took to his cerebral counterpart, dubbing him the Albert Einstein of Agent Orange researchers.

Schecter collected human tissue samples in the areas of heaviest spraying in the South and comparison samples from unsprayed regions in the North. What he discovered astounded him. People in the sprayed areas below the 17th parallel -- the old dividing line between North and South -- had dioxin levels higher than 100 parts per trillion. Americans, by contrast, average two parts per trillion.

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