Vietnamese and U.S. officials have agreed for the first time to work together to study the possible effects on humans and the environment of Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the American military during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Embassy said Tuesday.
American and Vietnamese scientists agreed to set up a pilot study to screen soil and sediment for dioxin, a toxic component of Agent Orange, at a meeting this week in Hanoi. They also agreed to hold the first Vietnamese-U.S. scientific conference on Agent Orange, tentatively scheduled for April in Vietnam.
The statement said both sides were "gratified with the spirit of cooperation and scientific discussion."
Analysts called the agreement an important step forward in addressing one of the most enduring and controversial legacies of the Vietnam War, which ended with a victory by Communist North Vietnam in 1975.
The immediate effect of the agreement is likely to be a freeing up of $850,000 of existing congressional funding made available for joint research.
This week's talks were the second round of discussions on the topic. Previous discussions in Singapore in December stalled on Vietnamese demands for an agreement linking research to compensation for victims, which the United States resisted.
The American side included representatives from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Vietnamese delegation included scientists from the National Center for Natural Science and Technology.
Agent Orange exposure has been associated with cancer, birth defects and miscarriages, though a direct link remains unproven.
The United States sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants on Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 to deny Communist fighters jungle cover. The chemicals were contaminated by TCDD, the most dangerous form of dioxin, a known carcinogen.
Washington argues that there is still no solid scientific proof that Agent Orange was, as Vietnam and some U.S. veterans insist, responsible for a wide range of maladies, including tens of thousands of mental and physical birth defects.
Vietnam's government has estimated that 1 million of the 78 million people in the Southeast Asian nation are affected by exposure to Agent Orange.