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Meanwhile, private foundations and individuals have taken the lead. Early efforts to identify and measure dioxin levels at Agent Orange hot spots were undertaken by the U.S.-based Ford Foundation in the 1990s. Later, with technical assistance from the EPA, Ford "capped" the most contaminated section of what is now the Da Nang International Airport, installing a filtration system to stop dioxins from flowing into the city's water supply and building a wall to keep people from entering the area. At another abandoned U.S. air base in the Aluoi Valley, a Vietnamese botanist raised $25,000 in donations to plant cactus-like bushes and thorn trees around contaminated areas to prevent villagers from entering to fish there. (Dioxins quickly accumulate in animal fat.) Though these are not long-term solutions, Hatfield found that after the simple barriers went up, dioxin levels in the blood and breast milk of nearby residents dropped dramatically.
Charities in Danang have voiced concerns about how U.S. money is being spent when it comes to providing care to the disabled in the region. A portion of the $6 million allocated by Congress was awarded to humanitarian groups working with disabled residents around Danang. But it is difficult to find evidence of the money at work. Save the Children was given $400,000 to help people with disabilities find employment. But the sole case the organization cited for a reporter was their work finding a job for a college graduate with a hair lip. Another chunk went to equip and refurbish a wing at Binh Dan Hospital in Danang, which sits largely empty. Because the American Rehabilitation Center has virtually no medical equipment, it has a difficult time attracting patients. Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Hanoi is spending $500,000 for a health and remediation adviser.
Groups caring for children born with horrific deformities from Agent Orange such as malformed limbs and no eyes are wondering why they haven't seen any of that money. Bedridden and unable to feed themselves, many patients need round-the-clock care. As they age, and parents die, who is going to look after them? asks Nguyen Thi Hien, director of the Danang Association of Victims of Agent Orange. She says donations to her group, which cares for 300 children, are down 50% because there is a belief that local charities are flush with cash thanks to the U.S.'s latest allocation. "The $1 million [being spent by the Americans] is not for care but mainly for conferences and training," said Hien. "This money should go to caring for the victims."
But determining who should benefit is a nightmare. Tests to establish dioxin levels in individuals run as high as $1,000 per person a price tag Vietnam says it can't afford. U.S. negotiators and scientists are frustrated that Vietnam seems to blame all the population's birth defects on the defoliants. Diplomats broke off talks several years ago complaining that Vietnam was unwilling to use accepted scientific methods because they might not support claims of widespread exposure and health damages. They have also complained that Vietnam could do more to help its own. No one is stopping the Vietnamese from erecting fences around contaminated spots, points out a U.S. diplomat, suggesting that the Vietnamese are exploiting the issue for more aid and sympathy.
Still, the Vietnamese people (and the government, though more quietly) contend it's the U.S. that should be doing more much more. Some point out that the U.S. spends only a fraction on Agent Orange cleanup compared to the $50 million it spends every year on searching for the remains of American soldiers missing in action. Thao Griffiths, country director of Vietnam Veterans of America, which works on lingering war issues, points out that the legacy of each is equally painful. "The issue of MIAs for Americans holds the same importance that Agent Orange does for the Vietnamese," she says. And until the issue is resolved, the legacy of the war will continue to haunt both sides.