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SPECIAL REPORT: Agent Orange: A Toxic DisasterAvigail Olarte Special to Salem-News.com
Authorities estimate that 4.8 million were exposed to Agent Orange dioxin in Vietnam, with more than 3 million victims, including children of the second and third generations.
(DaNang, Viet Nam ANN) - The boy is five, but he looks like he's only two years old. "Ta, ta, ta!", cries the boy as he rolls over onto his mother's lap, and points to a cup of water. He's thirsty, but he could neither speak nor prop himself up. In two years' time, or perhaps tomorrow, he will die.
Thieu* is afflicted with a rare disease of the bone. Every two weeks, his mother, Nguyen, takes him to the hospital for blood transfusion. Once his body rejects the treatment, he, like his elder sister who died at 7, will be the third child in his village succumbing to strange multiple diseases.
"We're trying to keep him alive for as long as possible. We don't know when it's time to say goodbye," says the mother of three, as she cradles her son, and presses her cheek against Theiu's slightly enlarged head.
It was only last year when Nguyen discovered that her children's illness could be traced back to a type of dioxin that reeks in the Danang International Airport, a former US airbase during the Vietnam War. For years since they moved next to the airbase in 1991, her husband had been fishing in the lake by the airport. No one in the village knew then that the waters were deadly, and that they fed on fish laced with the most harmful, toxic poison ever known in the world: the Agent Orange dioxin.
No one in her village too knows the extent of the damage the dioxin has inflicted on them, or who can help them with their illnesses. The Vietnam government has yet to come up with a policy for Agent Orange victims post-war-people who did not serve during the war or live in areas that were sprayed over, but are living in military storage areas where contamination continues long after the US had waged the greatest chemical warfare ever known in the history of mankind.
From 1961 to 1971, the US Army flew C-123 planes carrying tonnes of chemical agents sprayed in the hills of south and central Vietnam as part of its chemical war called Operation Ranch Hand. The so-called herbicides were to defoliate, raze forests to the ground, and deprive the enemy of their hideouts, and food and water supply.
Manufacturers needed to produce the herbicides at such a short time, applying high temperatures to Agent Orange, generating high levels of dioxin. About 80 million litres of several types of toxins were sprayed all over Vietnam. Agent Orange proved to be the most lethal, as it contained Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin or TCDD, the strongest, most harmful and lasting known poison.
A study from the University of Columbia in New York says 80 grams of dioxin in a town's water supply would kill 8 million people. "On that base, 40 billion times the lethal potential for one human being would have been sprayed over Vietnam," the study says.
Authorities estimate that 4.8 million were exposed to Agent Orange dioxin in Vietnam, with more than 3 million victims, including children of the second and third generations. The first generation of victims were either cadres, soldiers, volunteers who served the regime, and villagers in sprayed areas.
In Danang, one of the three dioxin hotspots in Vietnam, US troops used the airbase to store and mix the defoliant before loading them onto planes. After each trip, planes flew back and were hosed down on tarmacs. Whatever toxins leaked from those drums and residue from the planes seeped into the soil, found its way into water bodies and on to the food chain.
But while the contaminated area in the Danang airbase had later been sealed off, it was only in 2007 when authorities banned fishing in lakes near the airport. And Nguyen said she and her husband heard of the ban only last year, around the time they started to wonder why nine men in their district had died of cancer and more children were being born with defects and multiple disorders.
While Nguyen and her husband are not sick, it has been a painful 11 years witnessing her second child die, and her youngest, to die of the same disease.
"I never want to risk giving birth to another child again," she says.
A mother like her who has eaten a fish contaminated with dioxin, for instance, can instantly pass on the poison to her child during pregnancy or through breastfeeding. Or it could be passed on through the father, as dioxin is known to cause genetic mutations in male sperm cells, causing men exposed to Agent Orange to father children with birth defects.
For years, there have been many accounts of children born with cleft palates, clubfoot, fused fingers and toes, missing organs-at times a split penis and perforated anus, or organs on their faces; missing arms and limbs, nose and eyes, and hydrocephaly (water in the brain) or a major part of the brain missing, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and improperly fused spine or spina bifida.
Aid to victims
The Vietnam government gives aid to victims of AO who served during the war, but for the likes of Nguyen, they get much less than half of that. Right now, they get only 400,000 dong (US$19), the standard aid given to persons with disabilities in Vietnam. That paltry sum could not even cover for one blood transfusion, a procedure the child needs at least twice a month.
"We're raising funds from local and international organisations so we can support all of the victims," says Mai Duc Chinh, Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange's (Vava) director of information & education in Hanoi.
Nguyen Thi Hien, the head of Vava in Danang, says in a recent report that as of August, there are 62 confirmed cases of victims indirectly exposed to Agent Orange in the city.
She says Vava, together with government agencies, will soon be testing all people living in the dioxin-contaminated areas. But she tells AsiaNews a blood test for one person costs $1,000, and without enough funds, proving that the people's illnesses are connected with AO would be difficult.
In the meantime, Vava visits families around the airbase and checks if any member of the family has one of the 17 diseases linked with the dioxin, such as cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, neuro diseases like Parkinson's and birth defects. If none of the diseases are in the family history, it is highly likely that they got sick because of dioxin exposure either through food, water or air.
Cost of clean-up
Studies show that in areas where US military storages were located, the dioxin levels remain very high. In a 2009 report of Hatfied Consultlants, a Canadian company that has been involved in Agent Orange research since the 1980s, scientists found dioxin levels in Danang that continue to exceed Vietnamese and international standards, making the airbase a "significant hotspot".
The United States Agency for International Development is now preparing Danang for a clean-up that will cost $43 million. Dao Xuan Lai, head of the Sustainable Development Cluster of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Vietnam, says thermal desorption technology will be used to destroy the dioxin by insulating the soil at a very high temperature.
UNDP and the Global Environment Facility in August were already able to remove one of the three hotspots from the list, the Phu Cat airbase, by keeping the contaminated soil in a landfill. The landfill, unlike in Danang, will not destroy the dioxin but stop its spread to the environment and limit the exposure of villages around the airbase.
The Vietnam government, meanwhile, has spent $5 million to build a landfill in another hotspot, Bien Hoa, the worst-affected site. Tests are now being done to see if a low-cost technology, bioremediation, can be done to further reduce the levels.
UNDP believes that in 10 or 20 years' time, Vietnam will have the resources to fund new types of technologies that will completely eliminate dioxin in the country.
In an August 2012 US Congressional Research Service report by Michael F. Martin, he writes that the "Vietnamese and US governments have had reasons to avoid or delay consideration of the topic of Agent Orange cleanup."
Vietnan and the US avoided dealing with the devastating legacy of the war prior to Vietnam's obtaining of permanent trade relations with the US in 2006 and its membership to the World Trade Organisation in 2007. The US government "purportedly also has avoided the issue because of concerns about potential liability issues and/or presumptions of responsibility".
Three decades after the war, the US government still "does not recognise any legal liability for damages alleged to be related to Agent Orange". But since ties between the two countries have been restored, the US has increasingly been more willing to offer assistance to Vietnam.
The US Congress has since 2007 "directly or indirectly appropriated $63.4 million for Agent Orange/dioxin remediation and related health care activities in Vietnam". Most of the funds have been devoted for the environmental clean-up with smaller amounts being provided for "related health activities".
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Vietnam in July was also seen as way to boost bilateral ties, in a move to strengthen the US' presence in the region. In her speech she said, "It is a legacy issue that we remain concerned about and we have increased our financial commitment to dealing with it." Two years ago, she also encouraged support for the $300 million, 10-year plan by the Aspen Institute, as part of the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin programme to clean up the hot spots and provide aid to people with disabilities.
Making them pay
Still, there are those who say that the US government not only needs to provide support, it must fully admit to its faults and make the US manufacturers of Agent Orange to pay.
In 2005, the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange led by Vava lost a lawsuit against the two main manufacturers-Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto Company-and other companies and subsidiaries who supplied toxic chemicals for US military use. The Brooklyn Federal Court ruled that "the use of chemicals during the war, although they were toxic, did not fit the definition of 'poison' and therefore did not violate international law".
Appeals were filed all the way to the Supreme Court, but the petition was dismissed in 2009.
Vava, officially recognised by the Vietnamese government as the sole legal representative of AO victims, says it is preparing a class-action lawsuit, this time involving plaintiffs from New Zealand, South Korea, Australia, Laos and Cambodia who were also victims of Agent Orange. It will also elevate the matter before an international tribunal.
"We will continue to seek justice to remind everybody that chemical warfare should not happen again. Agent Orange will never be forgotten," says Mai The Chinh of Vava Hanoi.
*Not the boy's real name
Special thanks to our writer Chuck Palazzo in Viet Nam, Asia News Network and Yahoo News
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