Anthony Faiola, The Washington Post, November 14, 2006
DA NANG, Vietnam — For a stark reminder of the Vietnam War, people living near the airport in this central industrial city can still stroll along the old stone walls that once surrounded a U.S. military base. But Luu Thi Nguyen, a 31-year-old homemaker, needs only to look into the face of her young daughter.
Van, 5, spends her days at home, playing by herself on the concrete floor because local school officials say her appearance frightens other children. She has an oversize head and a severely deformed mouth, and her upper body is covered in a rash so severe her skin appears to have been boiled.
According to Vietnamese medical authorities, she is part of a new generation of Agent Orange victims, forever scarred by the U.S.-made herbicide containing dioxin, one of the world’s most toxic pollutants.
Though neither Nguyen nor her husband was exposed to the Agent Orange sprayed by U.S. forces from 1962 to 1971, officials here say they think the couple genetically passed on dioxin’s side effects after eating fish from contaminated canals.
Vietnamese and U.S. officials last year conducted their first joint scientific research project related to Agent Orange. Testing of the soil near Da Nang’s airport, where farmers say they have been unable to grow rice or fruit trees for decades, showed dioxin levels there as much as 100 times above acceptable international standards.
During the war, American forces sprayed about 12 million gallons of Agent Orange over Vietnam. The most toxic of the herbicides used for military purposes, it defoliated countless trees in areas where the communist North Vietnamese troops hid supply lines and conducted guerrilla warfare.
Vietnamese officials estimate the cost of cleaning up the country’s three worst hot spots will be as much as $60 million. The United States is planning to co-fund a project to remove massive amounts of the chemical from the soil. A senior U.S. official involved in Vietnam policy said the plan is evidence that the two countries, having embarked on a new era of economic cooperation, are finally collaborating to address the problem.
The more politically sensitive issues of responsibility and direct compensation for victims remain unresolved. Although medical authorities here estimate there are more than 4 million suspected dioxin victims in Vietnam, the U.S. maintains there are no conclusive scientific links between Agent Orange and the severe health problems and birth defects the Vietnamese attribute to dioxin.
In 1991, Congress authorized assistance for American veterans thought to be suffering from dioxin side effects, but at the same time, the legislation noted that conclusive links between illnesses and the herbicide remained “presumptive.” That allowed U.S. officials to sidestep a de facto admission of guilt in Vietnam and avoid offering compensation to Vietnamese victims.
At least one group of victims sued the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto. In the late 1970s, U.S. veterans filed a similar case and settled out of court in 1984 for a $180 million payment. The Vietnamese case was dismissed last year, but an appeal hearing is expected next month.
The recent advances toward cleaning up the environment are of little solace to Vietnamese. In a country where birth defects are considered by some an embarrassing reflection of the ill deeds of ancestors, many of the children born with the most severe defects end up abandoned or living in squalid conditions with families too poor to pay for adequate care.
The lucky ones end up in the Peace Village ward for Agent Orange victims at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. In rooms filled with stricken children, nurses tend to patients including a 2-year-old boy born without eyes and a 14-year-old girl whose head has grown bigger than her torso.
“I find it ironic that on one hand you put [Saddam Hussein] on trial for using biological warfare, but in another country where you sprayed chemicals for warfare, you neglect your responsibility,” said Duc Nguyen, who has one leg and severe bone distortions, and works as Peace Village’s information-technology specialist.