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Wednesday, 16 April 1980
Page: 1515

Senator MASON (New South Wales) - I wish to use the brief time available to me in this first reading debate on the Excise Tariff Amendment Bill to raise once more in the Senate the question of the Government's response to the effects of agent orange on Australia's Vietnam veterans. The Australian Democrats are far from satisfied with that response, so far as it has been made to this date. A little later I will suggest how the Government might improve that response. I believe it is worth restating the problem because it is one of a monstrous nature- that is not an exaggeration- and one to which I consider all Australians should give the most careful thought. The problem is that, having sent our young men to war in Vietnam, some of them, through no choice of their own, as conscripts, we now face the terrible irony that not only has their health been stricken by one of our weapons, in this case the weapon of our ally the United States, but also it is increasingly likely that this weapon can reach into the future, affecting with terrible deformities children already born and those yet to be born. Is this merely a supposition or is it the truth? That is the question that oppresses all of us. I would not have it on my conscience to make this suggestion here unless there were strong evidence in the affirmative, and that is why I am speaking on this subject in this debate.

I have been interested for some time in the question of the dioxin TCDD. It is a constituent inevitable in the manufacture of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, and for some years I have followed the research work being done around the world into the effects of both the dioxin and 2,4,5-T. It is a fact that 2,4,5-T, with an associated chemical 2,4-D, constituted agent orange. Even more to the point the 2,4,5-T in agent orange used in Vietnam had a very high concentration of the dioxin, and it is agreed that that dioxin is the most dangerous man-made molecule in the world. I will quote briefly from the February issue of the National Geographic magazine, which records an interview with Dr Louis Shadoff, a senior research specialist at the Dow Chemical Company in the United States, the principal manufacturer in the world of 2,4,5-T. The article states:

Wearing disposable plastic gloves, Dr Shadoff gingerly held up a vial containing one one-thousandth of an ounce of crystalline TCDD ... It looked like baking soda. It could probably kill 500 people.

I may be one of only 15 people in the world ', Dr Shadoff said, 'who have handled pure TCDD. It makes me nervous every time. ' After he had put away the vial, he peeled off his gloves, packed them in a carton, and sent it by courier to an incinerator to be burned at 1000° C.

I quote that article because it seems to me to demonstrate more than anything else the enormous danger of the substance we are considering, which our Vietnam veterans feel may have affected them and their children and are afraid will affect their future children. I quote from an article in the Australian of 3 March, entitled Vietnam's poison legacy', from Piers Akerman in New York. The article states:

An alarming number of dead and mutant children have been born to the wives of Vietnamese veterans who fought in areas sprayed with the herbicide Agent Orange, according to a study released exclusively to The Australian's New York Bureau.

The survey, prepared by Dr Ton That Tung, professor of" clinical surgery at the Faculty of Medicine at Hanoi's Duc Huu Ngh Hospital, is the first to be presented in the West.

Dr Tonfiled at the request of The Australian a 1 6-page report on his recently-completed investigation into the genetic effects of Agent Orange.

Hisconclusion, after a study of 700 married Vietnamese veterans, is that men who were in contact with Agent Orange are more than twice as likely to have children suffering from congenital defects than would fathers in the general community.

An examination of the statistics gathered by Dr Ton's team showed that there is reason to believe there is an excessively high incidence of attacks on the brain, causing encephalitis, microcephaly and anopthalmia (lack of eyes) in children of veterans who came in contact with Agent Orange.

There is also art abnormally high rate of heart defects and attacks on the nervous system and spinal cord, consistent with herbicide studies prepared by Barbara Field in Australia and reported on last year in the Lancet, the British medical journal.

I am not satisfied with the stall the Government has prepared to shuffle aside this matter. The $2m, two-year research program the Government has proposed so vaguely is simply a stall to get the matter of agent orange and the Vietnam veterans delayed until after this year's general election. That is not good enough. Action is needed now, and that action must be to get information from outside Australia which has a bearing on the whole topic, and then to look carefully at that evidence. After that, let us in all compassion and humanity make some awards to seriously ill Vietnam veterans, without prejudice to future actions they might take, if you like. If we are to err in this matter, let us err on the side of humanity. I am in the course now of negotiations with the Vietnam veterans which will result in a list of what they regard as the worst cases from the point of view of symptoms, and also of cases where symptoms are fairly identifiable with things that have happened overseas. I appeal to the Government to treat these cases, when they are presented, with justice and compassion. Let us get this matter of the children settled. It is not good enough for the Government to let the Hanoi research stand and do nothing about it. I am not asking the Government to accept that research without qualification, but I am challenging it to get a team of qualified Australian researchers to Hanoi to check out the research and its findings as soon as possible. I ask the Government then to apply that evidence taken from Vietnam, where agent orange was used in such vast quantities, to the situation of Australian servicemen and their families.

The Australian Democrats have already approached the Minister for Health (Mr MacKellar) asking that special orange-coloured personal treatment entitlement cards be issued to all Vietnam veterans for an initial period of 10 years. At present, Vietnam veterans have yellow personal treatment entitlement cards which allow them to go for treatment to local medical officers, who in fact are general practitioners throughout Australia. The Democrats are asking that this be extended so that a medical watch can be kept on all Vietnam veterans and their families over the necessary time span, which I am told by doctors could be many years. That step also ought to be taken at once, and we commend it to the Government as action it should take. There is other immediate action we recommend to the Government. Tests are available now on the mother's amniotic fluid which early in pregnancy, at about 15 weeks, detects Down's syndrome or mongolism. There is another series of tests after 20 weeks which reveal other possible abnormalities. We believe that these tests should be provided at the community's expense to the wives of Vietnam veterans. We know of a number of cases where the wives of Vietnam veterans are going through these tests at their own expense because they are worried about what the future holds for them. If they are to be reassured, or perhaps otherwise, it is better that that should be done at the expense of the community.

The matter of the Vietnam veterans and agent orange is something that closely touches the national honour and the national conscience. I believe that the Australian people would be only too willing to support an active compassionate program to assist this group of ill or worried people who were our soldiers in time of war. I appeal to the Government to do these four things: Firstly, to get the overseas evidence, especially from the Hanoi University, and act on it; secondly, to give all Vietnam veterans access to local medical officers through personal treatment entitlement cards; thirdly, to provide tests for pregnant wives of Vietnam veterans at public cost; and fourthly, above all to deal with this issue with compassion and understanding and, if there is a doubt, give our men the benefit of it.

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