Agent Orange Poisons New Generations in Vietnam

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STR New / Reuters

Deformed fetuses at Ho Chi Minh City's Tu Du Hospital, where doctors blame the high incidence of deformities on the use of Agent Orange during the war

This lonely section of the abandoned Danang air base was once crawling with U.S. airmen and machines. It was here where giant orange drums were stored and the herbicides they contained were mixed and loaded onto waiting planes. Whatever sloshed out soaked into the soil and eventually seeped into the water supply. Thirty years later, the rare visitor to the former U.S. air base is provided with rubber boots and protective clothing. Residue from Agent Orange, which was sprayed to deny enemy troops jungle cover, remains so toxic that this patch of land is considered one of the most contaminated pieces of real estate in the country. A recent study indicates that even three decades after the war ended, the cancer-causing dioxins are at levels 300 to 400 times higher than what is deemed to be safe.

After years of meetings, signings and photo ops, the U.S. held another ceremony in Vietnam on Dec. 16 to sign yet another memorandum of understanding as part of the continuing effort to manage Agent Orange's dark legacy. Yet there are grumblings that little — if anything — has been done to clean up the most contaminated sites. Since 2007, Congress has allocated a total of $6 million to help address Agent Orange issues in Vietnam. Not only does the amount not begin to scratch the surface of the problem or get rid of the tons of toxic soil around the nation, but there are questions about how the money is being spent. And several parties have noted with growing frustration that the money is primarily going to study the issue and hire consultants rather than implementing measures to prevent new generations from being exposed.

"There is still risk to people living in those areas," says Thomas Boivin, president of the Vancouver-based Hatfield Consultants, an environmental firm that has been identifying and measuring Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam since 1994. The good news is that Hatfield's studies indicate that even though 10% of southern Vietnam was sprayed with dioxins, only a handful of hot spots — all former U.S. military installations where the herbicide was mixed and stored — pose a danger to humans. The bad news? "If those were in Canada or in the U.S., they would require immediate cleanup," Boivin says.

Responding to complaints that America is dragging its feet, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak said the $1.7 million most recently allocated to conduct an environmental assessment of the Danang air base is being done to comply with both U.S. and Vietnamese law and is a necessary step toward cleanup. "We're investigating many promising techniques," Michalak said following the signing ceremony in Hanoi. Careful study is required if the job is to be done right, he added. "We know there is dioxin in the soil," he said. "But what method do we use to remove it? Where do we tell the diggers to dig? It's just another step on the road."

But critics believe the U.S. is playing a grim waiting game: waiting for people to die in order to avoid potentially costly lawsuits. For a country currently engaged in two wars, accepting comprehensive responsibility for wartime damages could set an expensive precedent. "They know what the problem is and where it is," says Chuck Searcy, country representative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "Why do they now need an environmental impact assessment? They are studying this to death."

Scientists have been raising the alarm about dioxins since the 1960s. After TCDD, the dioxin in Agent Orange, was found to cause cancer and birth defects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) slapped an emergency ban on the herbicide in 1979. Dow and Monsanto, the chemical's largest manufacturers, eventually shelled out millions in damages to U.S. troops who were exposed to it while it was being used as a wartime defoliant from 1961 to 1971. The U.S. government still spends billions every year on disability payments to those who served in Vietnam — including their children, many of whom are suffering from dioxin-associated cancers and birth defects. In October, the Department of Veterans Affairs added leukemia, Parkinson's and a rare heart disease to the list of health problems associated with Agent Orange. Yet U.S. official policy maintains that there is no conclusive evidence that the defoliant caused any health problems among the millions of exposed Vietnamese or their children.

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