BANGKOK — The United States next week in Vietnam will begin cleaning up leftover deposits of the toxic chemical dioxin from the herbicide Agent Orange sprayed by U.S. forces on vegetation during the Vietnam War. The toxin was found at former U.S. air bases and has been linked to disease and birth defects. On the significance of the cleanup and the health consequences of dioxin still felt in Vietnam today.
Vietnamese and U.S. officials on Thursday are launching a project to clean up a contaminated former American airbase at Da Nang.
The Vietnam War-era base was one of many used to store Agent Orange, an herbicide with an unintended but highly toxic byproduct, dioxin.
During the Vietnam War U.S. air forces sprayed millions of liters of Agent Orange to clear vegetation in search of Vietnam’s communist forces.
The defoliant killed off millions of acres of vegetation and has been linked to diseases such as diabetes, cancer and birth defects.
But, due to doubts about scientific evidence, and concerns about liability and diplomatic relations, efforts to clean up the toxin have been slow.
Charles Bailey is director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam Program
at the Aspen Institute, a co-chair of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange. He says the clean-up marks a historic turning point and both governments deserve credit.
Daniel Schearf interviews Charles Bailey
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“Because, they’ve both come a long way from being, you know, unable to agree on most aspects of this subject to a point where they have successfully over a number of years done all the technical work to get to this point of saying ‘ok, here’s how we’re going to destroy it once and for all,” said Bailey.
Exposure to Agent Orange
The U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, is overseeing the clean up at Da Nang, the most toxic of 28 dioxin “hot spots” in Vietnam.
The decontamination will involve testing and gathering affected soil and heating it to high temperature to burn off leftover dioxin.
Da Nang is still a working airport so the four-year, $43 million, project has to be carried out carefully.
Other former air bases are expected to be cleaned-up within the next decade, erasing the most toxic traces of dioxin.
But, Bailey says even after decontamination the larger problem is helping people and their descendants whose health problems are associated with Agent Orange.
“For them, particularly for children and young adults who’ve been born with disabilities, the effort, the focus, has been on programs that will enable them to live lives of greater comfort and dignity and to achieve what they are capable of, and to assist their families,” Bailey stated.
Vietnam says at least three million people living near the bases were exposed to Agent Orange and show higher incidents of disease and birth defects.
Families suffering from disabilities show a higher rate of poverty as health care expenses go up and family income goes down.
The U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin estimates $450 million is needed to completely eliminate dioxin “hot spots” and provide care, education, and economic opportunities to those affected.
So far, about $100 million has been raised from American foundations, United Nations agencies, and governments including the United States.