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The Vietnam’s War Environmental Legacy

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The United States will never do enough to compensate Vietnam for the horrible crimes it committed against that country. Those crimes didn’t suddenly end in 1973 or 1975. Rather, the incredible environmental damage from the defoliation campaigns remains a major problem for Vietnam. That’s in terms of defoliation but also the massive pollution of waterways with dioxin from Agent Orange. But at least the U.S. and Vietnam are now working together to clean up at least one site, the old air force base at Bien Hoa.

Bien Hoa was the larger of the two air bases that served as the main hubs of the campaign. The other was in the coastal city of Da Nang, 500 miles to the north. By the time Operation Ranch Hand ended in 1971, one-sixth of South Vietnam had been blanketed with 20 million gallons of herbicides, and as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians had been exposed to the spray. In the chaos of wartime, both at Bien Hoa and Da Nang, there was also a good deal of human error. Lethal chemicals were mishandled, spilled, or carelessly disposed of. Thousands of gallons leaked into the soil from bulk storage tanks. But now, 50 years after the contamination occurred, the time has finally come to clean up the Bien Hoa air base. Both U.S. and Vietnamese officials call it one of the biggest and most complex environmental remediation projects in the world. It will involve the treatment of enough contaminated soils and sediments to fill 200 Olympic-size swimming pools, and it will cost at least $390 million, and possibly much more.

Dioxin is actually a family of more than 400 chemical compounds, of which the deadliest is 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-P-dioxin, or TCDD. In the context of the war in Vietnam, this is what the word dioxin means.

No one set out deliberately to spray dioxin on Vietnam, but war is defined by catastrophic accidents as well as by deliberate cruelty, and Agent Orange may have been the worst of them. The defoliant was created by combining two chemicals. Each of them was toxic in its own right, but neither contained dioxin. To meet the relentless demand from the Pentagon, the production process was accelerated, raising the mixture to a higher temperature, and that is what created the dioxin.

The scale of contamination at Bien Hoa is hard to wrap one’s head around. The presence of dioxin is measured in parts per trillion, or ppt TEQ (toxic equivalency). In sediments, the level considered tolerable by the Vietnamese government is 150 ppt TEQ. In the Buu Long canal, the highest concentration found was 3,370, surpassing the limit by more than 20-fold. As for soils, the maximum levels set by the Vietnamese government range from 40 in croplands to 1,200 in industrial and commercial areas (the classification used for the air base). In the Pacer Ivy section of the Bien Hoa base, the concentration in one soil sample was an astonishing 962,559 ppt TEQ, about 800 times the Vietnamese threshold of concern, and 1,300 times higher than the stricter standard used in the United States.

As a result of the spills at Bien Hoa, dioxin has for half a century seeped silently and invisibly into neighborhoods like Buu Long, flushed downhill during the rainy season, borne on the wind as dust, and deposited in the sediment at the bottom of the drainage canal. Accumulating steadily as it moves up the food chain, it is in the ponds people fish in and the fish they eat, the ducks and chickens they raise in their yards, and the breast milk that nourishes their newborn infants.

Soon after the war ended, the Vietnamese — as well as American veterans — became aware of alarming new patterns of disease. No one will ever know how many have died of the conditions that are now known to be associated with exposure to dioxin, including nine different kinds of cancer. But the singular horror of TCDD is its epigenetic effects — causing changes in gene expression that can be transmitted from one generation to the next. The consequences are visible in Vietnam’s orphanages and rural villages: children and adults with grotesque facial deformities, matchstick limbs that splay out at unnatural angles, the swollen and distorted heads that denote hydrocephalus, the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.

The best guess is that as many as a million Vietnamese have disabilities that may be attributable to Agent Orange. According to Nguyen Dao, president of the Dong Nai province office of the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), there are 1,055 in Bien Hoa city and more than 14,000 in the province as a whole. And new cases are still appearing in the third generation to be born since the war ended.
Often the pathway of disease is hard to trace with certainty. In a neighborhood called Trung Dung, a few hundred yards south of the air base, I met a man named Nguyen Kien, who was born four years after the war ended. His emaciated legs are bent and deformed in a way that frequently afflicts Agent Orange victims, but unlike many he has retained the full use of his arms and his upper-body strength. Kien has fought hard to overcome his disabilities, selling lottery tickets to supplement his meager government pension, becoming a medal-winning wheelchair racer, and recently getting married — although, he said, “I am worried about having children in case I pass my disabilities on to them.” But where did his disabilities come from in the first place? Were they passed on to him by his father, who fought for years on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which wound its way in and out of Laos and Vietnam and was a prime target of the spraying? Or were they the result of growing up in Trung Dung and eating the food that was produced there? Just two blocks from Kien’s house is Bien Hung lake, a popular recreational spot that was heavily contaminated by a wartime spill at the air base. “We only heard that Agent Orange was toxic in 2003,” said Kien’s widowed mother, Pham Thi Gai. “Before that it was only a rumor.”

But hey, the success of communists in Vietnam destroyed the rest of Asia, just like McNamara and LBJ and Nixon and everyone else said, right? So this was totally worth it!

Anyway who thinks the United States has been a beneficent nation for the world is totally ignorant or simply refuses to believe the truth about this horrible, awful, no good nation’s foreign policy. And I simply don’t believe the U.S. is really that serious about cleaning up the dioxin in Vietnam. After all, it’s not serious about protecting its own citizens from toxicity. But at least there are some good people trying to move forward.

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