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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Agent Orange

Air Date: Week of

Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the United States during the Vietnam War, has left its mark on the environment and people’s health a quarter of a century after the end of the war. Owen Bennett Jones reports on the efforts being made in Vietnam to address the problems caused by the herbicide.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

TOOMEY: And I'm Diane Toomey. President Clinton's trip to Vietnam in the week before Thanksgiving marks the first time a U.S. President has visited the country since the end of the Vietnam War. Mr. Clinton's visit is intended to promote continued cooperation on efforts to bring home the remains of American soldiers still missing in Vietnam. Also on the agenda is a new trade agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam. The trade deal was signed this year and now must be ratified by both countries. The United States has also recently agreed to work with Vietnam on another front: we've offered to share our scientific knowledge about Agent Orange. Agent Orange is the herbicide used by the U.S. military during a defoliation campaign called Operation Ranch Hand. An estimated eleven million gallons of Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam from 1965 through 1970, and many in that country believe the toxic effects are still being felt. Owen Bennett Jones reports from Hanoi.

JONES: There were other defoliants, like Agent Blue, Agent Purple, and Agent Green. But the most powerful was Agent Orange, which contained high levels of the chemical dioxin. During the Vietnam War the United States sprayed Agent Orange on around fourteen percent of Vietnam's land. Back in 1965, some of it landed on U.S. veteran Tom Joyce.

JOYCE: We were out in the central highlands. One of the C-130s, I believe, came over, and just dropped it. We didn't know what it was. You know, we just: "hey, it's raining." You know, you would think it's just a short shower coming through. Twenty-four hours later the leaves are dead.

JONES: Tom Joyce now suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system that affects his balance. He believes his condition was caused by Agent Orange. The U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs has set up an Agent Orange registry to treat veterans. But proving a link between certain illnesses and Agent Orange is difficult and highly controversial.

(Vietnamese students counting)

JONES: At a school in Hanoi called the Peace Village, some Vietnamese 15-year-olds try to count from one to ten. They don't find it easy. They have cognitive problems. Vietnamese health officials say that's because they're Agent Orange victims. Since 1994, the Vietnamese government has worked with a Canadian-based environmental consulting firm, Hatfield Consultants. The result is the most thorough independent survey yet to assess dioxin levels in central Vietnam. Chris Hatfield, who conducted the survey, says some areas, called hot spots, have high concentrations of the chemical. Most of these hot spots are on former U.S. air bases where Agent Orange was stored, and one is located in the Aluoi Valley near the border with Laos.

HATFIELD: The levels that we got around this particular base, the hot spot that we found, are equal to any level that was measured even just after the war. So it appears that in some places the toxin hasn't really reduced at all. Dioxin has moved from the soils to the sediment of fish ponds and into the fish themselves that are raised in the ponds for food. Right up into the blood and the breast milk.

JONES: The suspicion that some 30 years after the U.S. stopped spraying Agent Orange dioxins could still be infecting fetuses through the placenta and infants through breast milk adds urgency to the demands for a clean-up.

MAN: Okay, right. (A creaking sound) Start working your way forward in your lanes, using your base sticks, sweeping the one point two meters ...

JONES: Some land mine clearers get to work in another former U.S. military base. The Vietnamese military and, more recently, Western aid workers have been trying to remove the mines left behind after the war. But the cleanup of something else in the soil, Agent Orange, hasn't even begun. Professor Le Cao Dai is the executive director of the Agent Orange Victim Fund, which is part of the Vietnamese Red Cross. Last year, Professor Dai released a report that said between 800,000 and a million Vietnamese suffer Agent Orange-related health problems. But, he says, the Vietnamese government is not sure how to approach the cleanup.

DAI: [speaks in Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: So far, the Vietnamese government has not been able to do anything to clean up. Some experts say we should use bacteria, but this method can only work in small laboratories. Several countries suggested dioxin would disintegrate if we burnt the land to a very high temperature, but there is no known method to break down the dioxin in the most seriously-affected areas.

JONES: Earlier this year, the U.S. Defense Department agreed to participate in an international research effort on Agent Orange. The American ambassador in Hanoi is Pete Peterson.

PETERSON: We have begun, or are in the process of beginning, a joint research effort on Agent Orange. And that is a serious effort. We are now in the process of working with the Vietnamese to establish the modalities for conducting that research, and we hope that that can get launched in the very near future.

JONES: U.S. officials say they hope to build Vietnam's capacity to deal with environmental issues. According to Chris Hatfield, people living in the affected areas are desperately in need of a solution.

HATFIELD: If it was in North America or Europe, some of the areas would definitely be cleaned up. But it's a very expensive proposition that's usually done with high-temperature incineration. So in Vietnam, as first steps we're recommending that the people just not live on the hot spots, and they don't dig fish ponds and they don't raise food there and things like that.


JONES: Back at the Peace Village some mentally disabled adolescents thought to be Agent Orange victims, are being taught traditional handicraft skills. Hopefully, the training will help them get a job. But Vietnamese officials fears there will be more victims to come, as long as one of the most persistent legacies of the Vietnam War remains in the country's ecosystem. For Living on Earth, this is Owen Bennett Jones in Hanoi.



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