Agent Orange Lingers Decades After Vietnam War
Agent Orange Lingers Decades After Vietnam War by David Schaad
During our time together in Vietnam´s urban and rural environments, several of us have remarked to one another about how easy it seems as outsiders to forget that less than 40 years ago, this country was in the throes of a costly and brutal war. Vast, lush mangrove forests in particular, recently reborn from expansive war-borne wastelands, make the war seem like a distant dream.
Still, the wounds and losses of war remain painfully vivid in many people´s lives today. In particular, the ongoing issues and concerns surrounding the use of chemical defoliants by the United States military are impossible to escape.
For a decade ending in 1971, U.S. military aircraft sprayed 72 million liters (20 million US gallons) of concentrated defoliants over thousands of square miles of forest and farmland – 16% of South Vietnam in total and nearly 19% of all of Vietnam´s forested terrain – to erase the natural cover of Viet Cong forces. (The Viet Cong, also known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), sought to reunite South Vietnam with the North as a single unified nation under communist rule). This offensive would become the most concentrated effort to obliterate a nation´s natural ecology in the history of humankind.
Agent Orange was only one of several defoliants used during this decade, four of which contained dioxin – but it was the most widely used and has therefore received the most attention. Many have deemed dioxin (actually 2-3-7-8 tetra chlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD) to be among the most deadly and harmful of all known substances known to humankind. A mere 85 grams of TCDD would be sufficient to kill a city of 8 million..
Japanese photographer Goro Nakamura cites that four million Vietnamese have been adversely affected by Agent Orange, though it is likely that this number does not account for more recent cases. Dioxins are persistent environmental toxins, meaning that they do not quickly disintegrate or disperse from sites sprayed during the war and can linger in sediments and soils, both on land and under water, for generations. Dioxins accumulate in fatty tissue and enter the food chain through the animals or fish that feed in affected areas; they also biomagnify up the food chain.
Agent Orange residues in the soil which have remained long after the war have exposed many farmers and their families to TCDD unknowingly, and while many of these people have continued to appear healthy, they give birth to deformed, even stillborn children with mutated DNA. Those who live past birth may look as though they have leprosy, while others are troubled by mental disorders; deformed limbs, bodies or faces; congenital blindness; Parkinson´s and heart diseases; or other conditions which either allow for a severely reduced life span or require constant care from family members, rendering these individuals vulnerable and disabled, and putting emotional and resource strains on their families.
Vietnamese victims have sued 37 chemical companies, most notably Dow Chemical and Monsanto, hoping to receive compensation for suffering birth defects, congenital diseases, and aforementioned genotoxic (multi-generational) effects. The U.S. Supreme Court absolved the chemical companies of any such liability, although these companies did pay out a US$180 million sum to compromised U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
Recently, though highly overdue, an important first step was made towards permanent cleanup of residual TCPP in Vietnam. In June of 2012, the United States government finally committed to a dioxin removal project, which will extract dioxin from 71 acres of land at the airport in Danang, Vietnam, the previous site of a U.S. military base. The project will require four years to carry out and carries a price tag of $32 million. Other former U.S. air bases have been identified with alarming concentrations of dioxin, which continues to seep into the surrounding soil and neighboring waterways, but no further cleanup has yet been guaranteed by the United States.
A far more comprehensive and substantial effort will be required to repair damaged soils and waterways. A recent estimate by the Aspen Institute determined that the U.S. Government would need to spend nearly ten times the cost of this first project to eliminate the remaining toxic dioxin concentrations in Vietnam and provide compensation to disabled Vietnamese. While families of retired U.S. soldiers receive up to US$1,500 per month in compensation for Agent Orange related health issues, Vietnamese families who are lucky enough to receive financial assistance take in a meager $5US in the same time period to support disabled children.
While we cannot undo the evils of the past, as U.S. citizens we still have a crucial role to play with regard to the cleanup of Agent Orange. Our government and our chemical companies brought this tragedy on the people and ecosystems of Vietnam, albeit before most of us were born. Bestowed with great privilege as Montanans and as Americans, blessed with healthy landscapes and political influence, we must put continued pressure on the Obama Administration to fund and support the bioremediation of this toxic chemical to the fullest extent possible. We also ask that appropriate financial compensation and resources be given to the Vietnamese who lost so much and who are left to care for their disabled family members. This is what we owe the Vietnamese people as a strong and wealthy nation, as friends, and as fellow human beings. The pursuit of justice in the wake of the war demands that we restore affected lands to full health and empower the victims of Agent Orange to the fullest extent possible.
Lonely Planet Guidebook
War Remnants Museum, particularly:
“Agent Orange in the Vietnam War” by Goro Nakamura (panel at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam).