USA and Vietnam join efforts to deal with Agent Orange toxic legacy

A new U.S.-Vietnamese humanitarian effort is being launched to deal with the legacy of Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide that U.S. troops sprayed across Vietnam during the war.

The project is being coordinated by the Ford Foundation, a New York-based charitable group that plans to spend $7.5 million on Agent Orange work over the next two years.

Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, who makes a state visit to Washington on Friday, met with Ford officials in New York on Tuesday to discuss the effort, which will bring together prominent scientists, policy-makers and business figures from both countries, according to a foundation statement.

Leading the effort is a newly appointed U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange, whose members include Christine Todd Whitman, the former secretary of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Ton Nu Thi Ninh, vice chair of the Vietnamese National Assembly's foreign affairs committee.

"The time is right for our two countries to come together to address this legacy and to mainstream discussion of this unresolved issue," Whitman said in a statement.

Dioxin, the highly toxic chemical in Agent Orange, still contaminates the soil in various places where U.S. troops used to store, mix and load the herbicide onto airplanes. It has been associated with various birth defects and health problems.

The group will try to build a bipartisan, humanitarian approach to Agent Orange among government, charitable groups and donors "where diplomatic efforts alone have proved difficult."

It will promote efforts to clean up dioxin at former U.S. military bases; support treatment and education centers for victims of dioxin-related disorders; and develop a Vietnamese lab for dioxin testing.

Vietnam says as many as 3 million citizens have suffered Agent Orange-related health problems. The U.S. says more research is needed to prove the link between the herbicide and health.

Triet is expected to discuss Agent Orange issues with U.S. President George W. Bush this week. The two leaders agreed last fall to work together to address environmental and health issues near former Agent Orange storage sites in Vietnam.