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The toxic legacy of the Vietnam War

US and Vietnam begin a historic project to clean up Agent Orange, a powerful toxin that was used to defoliate vast swathes of jungle in an attempt to flush out Viet Cong guerillas, causing high rates of cancer and birth deformities among the innocent

From deformed infants to grandparents with cancer, families near Vietnam’s Danang Airbase have long blamed the toxic legacy of war for their ills. Now after a decades-long wait, a historic Agent Orange clean-up is finally beginning.

The base was a key site in the US defoliant programme during the Vietnam War and much of the 80 million litres of Agent Orange used during Operation Ranch Hand was mixed, stored and loaded onto planes there.

But yesterday, the US and Vietnam began a long-awaited joint clean-up effort at the site – using technology which will heat the contaminated soil to temperatures high enough to break dioxin down into harmless compounds.

“During the war, when we lived right by the runway, some nights we would have to cover our mouths because of a strange smell,” Danang resident Nguyen Thi Binh, 78, said.

Three of Ms Binh’s five children are severely mentally and physically disabled.

For years she thought this was due to sins committed in a past life but now believes it could be due to her and her late husband’s dioxin exposure.

“I heard it might be Agent Orange,” she said in her tiny house in Danang city as her adult daughters crawled around herlike infants.

Nguyen Thi Luu, 38, has lived by the Danang Airbase for 13 years. Her daughter, now 11, was born severely mentally disabled with disfiguring facial deformities.

“The doctors told me she was just born like this,” she said. “I don’t understand. With a child like this, life is very hard.”

The defoliants were sprayed over vast swathes of jungle in South Vietnam in an attempt to flush out Viet Cong communist guerillas by depriving them of tree cover and food.

Washington still disputes the “uncertain” link between dioxin exposure and ill health.

Nonetheless speaking at the launch ceremony for the decontamination operation, US Ambassador David Shear described it as a “historic milestone”.

“We’re cleaning up this mess,” he said. “We’re also committed to people in Vietnam with disabilities, regardless of cause.”

The $43 million project comes as the former foes draw closer in the face of rising Chinese asser­tiveness in the South China Sea.

The Danang Airbase is one of three “dioxin hotspots” singled out by multiple recent studies where concentrations of extremely toxic contaminants from Agent Orange are nearly 400 times the globally accepted maximum standard.

Until five years ago, when the area was finally sealed off, residents such as Ms Binh fished, bathed and harvested lotus plants from the Sen Lake – and ate local fish with more than three times the safe level of dioxin.

As a result, victims groups say, rates of cancer, birth deformities and other dioxin-related diseases are higher than the national average in the area – and the health threat lingers.

“In hotspots like Danang Airbase we are still finding very young people who are affected by (Agent Orange related) diseases,” said Nguyen Van Rinh, chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA).

“The government doesn’t have the capacity to move them out of contaminated areas,” the 71-year-old retired general said.

Hanoi says up to three million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange and that one million suffer serious health consequences today, including at least 150,000 children born with birth defects.

An attempt by Vietnamese victims to obtain compen-sation from the US had little success, and the US Supreme Court in 2009 declined to take up the case.

American veterans have received billions of dollars for diseases linked to Agent Orange but neither the US government nor the chemical manufacturers ever admitted liability.

In Vietnam, the link between exposure and diseases is “uncertain”, US Embassy spokesman Christopher Hodges said.

Since 1989, Washington has given $54 million to help Vietnamese with disabilities “regardless of cause”, and some $20 million has been set aside for the Danang clean-up and disability projects in 2012, he said.

For the victims, the decontamination project is long overdue.

“I think that this clean-up is too late because so many people have already been affected by dioxin,” said Nguyen Thi Hien, who heads VAVA in Danang.

The eventual price tag for cleaning all the country’s hotspots and supporting victims could run to $450 million, according to some estimates.

What is Agent Orange?

• Agent Orange was one of a class of colour-coded herbicides that US forces sprayed over the rural landscape in Vietnam to kill trees, shrubs and food crops to flush out Viet Cong communist guerillas by depriving them of tree cover and food.

• Agent orange was a 50/50 mixture of two individual herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.

• Sometimes it is used as a synonym for dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known to science.

•TCDD dioxin was an unintentional by-product of the manufacturing process of 2,4,5-T, and was present in significant amounts in Agent Orange and three other defoliants.

• The production of Agent Orange was halted in the 1970s, existing stocks were destroyed and it is no longer used.

• Agent Orange has been called a metaphor for all the lingering consequences of war and for an awakening of public concern about the responsibility of science and government.

• Vietnamese scientists have linked veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange to high rates of digestive ailments, neural disease, skin diseases and cancers.

• Women living in sprayed regions have experienced high rates of premature birth, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, molar pregnancy, uterine cancer and severe birth defects.

• The effects persist in the form of ecologically degraded landscapes in parts of the hilly and mountainous areas of Vietnam.

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