K. Oanh Ha, San Jose Mercury News, November 24, 2006
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Dang Hong Nhut smiles broadly when she speaks about her first-born, a son she describes as tall and handsome, born before American combat in Vietnam intensified. Her face wrinkles up in revulsion when conversation turns to her other child, who died years ago in her womb three months before full term.
“The body was very deformed,” the 70-year-old said in a hushed voice. “I was scared to look at it. It was not natural.”
Dang and medical authorities here say she and the stillborn child, stored in a jar of formaldehyde at a local hospital, are the victims of Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide American troops sprayed during the Vietnam war to defoliate jungles and root out communist Viet Cong fighters.
Thirty-one years after the end of the war in Vietnam, the chemical warfare unleashed by United States still maims. It’s one of the last remaining legacies of the war that President Bush was pressed to address during his recent visit to Vietnam. In a broad joint statement of the two countries issued last weekend, the presidents agreed that combined efforts by both countries to deal with environmental contamination at former U.S. military bases where the toxin was stored would help to deepen the relationship.
It was far short of a public acknowledgment of responsibility by the U.S. that some Vietnamese hoped for, or the financial aid to those disabled by Agent Orange that many experts working on the issue say is desperately need.
“There’s been progress,” said Le Ke Son, director general of Vietnam’s Office of National Steering Committee on toxic chemicals used by the U.S. during the war. “It’s just a small effort so far but the needs are immense. … Cleaning up the contamination is a good thing, but what about the many victims whose lives are already damaged by it?”
The topic is delicate, with possible implications for both the U.S. government and American manufacturers of the chemicals. “It’s a subject that is very painful and very sensitive,” said Charles Bailey, head of the Ford Foundation in Hanoi, which recently announced it would grant $2.2 million to Agent Orange research, clean-up efforts and assistance for those afflicted by exposure to the toxin.
At the Peace Village, which doubles as a hospital and group home, 60 children bear the scars of the poisonous chemical. They or their parents come from areas where Agent Orange was sprayed, in the mountainous regions north of Saigon and rural areas along the borders with Cambodia and Laos.
There’s a four-year-old girl without eyes whose fingers are fused. All 20 of her fingers and toes end at the first joint. Her mother is dying of ovarian cancer. Several children wrestle with over-sized heads and eyes that bulge from their sockets. Others have missing limbs and deformities. Many suffer mental retardation.
And all but a few have been abandoned by their families. Some parents were too poor to take care of their children, others left them at the hospitals where they were born. In Vietnamese society, disability comes with great shame.
“None of the kids ever wanted to play with him,” said Nguyen Thi Sau, mother of a 29-year-old afflicted with cerebral palsy and mental retardation who the government has certified as an Agent Orange victim.
As she spoke, her son held up one finger in front of his nose. “He’s saying he only has himself,” she said.
U.S. troops dumped 21 million gallons of herbicide over at least 3,000 Vietnamese villages in the decade beginning in 1961, according to a study by Columbia’s School of Public Health in 2003.
The bulk of the defoliants used was Agent Orange and contained dioxin, which is listed by the U.S. government as a carcinogen and has been tied to birth defects.
American researchers estimated that as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese could have been exposed. By Vietnam’s count, there were at least 1 million in 2000 who were physically disabled because of exposure to dioxin. American officials in the past have said that Vietnam may be over-counting the number afflicted and blaming dioxin for disabilities that have other causes.
For many Vietnamese exposed to Agent Orange, the poison visibly took its toll on their children – many of whom were born with mangled bodies and minds. More than three decades after the war, people still face exposure because they live in regions where dioxin leached into the ground and remains a threat. The sites of former U.S. military bases are especially toxic.
The Ford Foundation funded a report to map dioxin “hot spots.” In one area of the former American base in Bien Hoa north of Ho Chi Minh City, tests showed the level of dioxin was 1 million parts per trillion, said Khe, Vietnam’s Agent Orange expert. In the United States, 1,000 parts per trillion is the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency may require clean-up.
Le, director of Vietnamese agency that tracks the issue, said he began working with EPA officials and other U.S. scientists in the past two years to assess the environmental damage. Along with the Ford Foundation grant, the U.S. is contributing $300,000 toward a clean-up plan, and the United Nations Development Program is reportedly issuing a grant soon for clean-up efforts.
For years, Dang didn’t know what had ravaged her body and likely caused her to miscarry three times before the stillbirth in 1977. Her husband lived in the jungles for 15 years as a guerilla battling for Vietnam’s independence and she joined him for months at a time.
“It would hover over the jungle like a fog,” she recalled of the poison. What she remembers most vividly was the smell – fruity, like an overripe guava in certain years of spraying. Other times, it left an acidic taste in her mouth.
“We knew it was the smell of death,” she said. “They wanted to kill us.”
She suffered long bouts of illness, developing tumors in her neck and stomach. A biopsy showed high levels of dioxin. Her husband died seven years ago of a cancer that began in his stomach and spread to his lungs and liver.
“The war has been long over but this poison lingers inside of me,” said Dang, who appears healthy and young for her age. “I just want it to go away.”
Dang has joined 26 other Vietnamese in a lawsuit against American manufacturers of dioxin, including Monsanto and Dow. The suit was thrown out by a New York judge last year on the basis that the herbicide was not considered a poison under international law at the time U.S. troops used it. The plaintiffs are appealing.
The Vietnamese hope a $180 million out-of-court settlement awarded to American veterans by the chemical companies in 1984 might work in their favor. In 1991, Congress approved assistance for American vets suffering from exposure to dioxin – but avoided taking direct responsibility by noting that the links between the illnesses and Agent Orange were “presumptive.”
The Vietnamese government pays out about $40 million a year to victims of Agent Orange who fought for the communists, said Le. Like most Vietnamese, he thinks the U.S. government should help take care of his countrymen who suffer from dioxin-related illnesses.
“The U.S. government brought dioxin into Vietnam and used it on the Vietnamese, causing millions to suffer,” Le said. “The U.S government needs to take responsibility for that.”