Code Name: Agent Orange
by Karen Piper and Jason Ray
With the Vietnam War now 35 years in the past, it seems impossible that anything other than memories would continue to persist; yet the affects of Agent Orange continue to slowly erode the health and confidence of the people of Vietnam. With 20 million gallons disbursed over the Vietnam jungles and farmlands, and thousands of barrels stored on the ground, Agent Orange has claimed the top spot as the most damaging decision of the war.
While Agent Orange played a vital role in defoliating areas where guerrillas could easily hide, the long-term impact has proven devastating to the locals who continue to suffer from a poisoned food supply, and the constant unease of unexpected birth defects that their children may exhibit.
With a firm stance by the US government (until 1991) and the manufacturers (still today) that Agent Orange was harmless, the less than fair treatment of those Vietnam Veteran’s who were unlucky enough to get exposed to it, and the successful defense by the manufacturing companies, little has been left for the Vietnamese people who continue to battle with the long term affects of the poison. With many years of denial and evasion, US Veterans were also ignored as disability claims quickly mounted. Finally, in 1991, the US Congress Enacted the Agent Orange Act, which paved the way for a more fair compensation plan for US Veterans who had been exposed, but what about the locals who continue to suffer from the Agent Orange dioxins that have permeated the food supplies in Vietnam?
A report by the World Health Organization describes dioxins as “a group of chemically-related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants. They are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer”. () More than 90% of human exposure happens via the food chain as the dioxins accumulate mainly in the fatty tissues of animals. To reduce the risk of exposure and its consequences, the strict regulation of food supplies is needed, as well the implementation of proper disposal processes via incineration. The WHO also reports that the most sensitive group to the exposure of dioxin is the developing fetus, as well as newborns due to their rapidly developing organ systems. This is highly evident in certain areas within Vietnam where many children have been born with cognitive developmental issues and physical deformities; a number reported at 150,000 by the Red Cross of Vietnam. Most families and communities do not have the resources or knowledge to cope with raising these children; so many are left in the care of charitable organizations such as The Friendship Village ().
With international opinion of the damaging effects of Agent Orange finally in alignment, we hope that the US Government, the Vietnam Government, and the manufacturers will finally take aggressive and lasting steps to clean up the highly contaminated areas, craft easy to understand and effective awareness campaigns for the locals, and provide long term, well-funded, treatment and housing facilities for the affected.
Recently the Vietnamese government has teamed up with the US Agency for International Development in a joint effort to clean up a site near Da Nang which has high levels of the dioxin. The first clean-up operation is taking place at a former US military airbase, where thousands of barrels of Agent Orange were stored during the war. Currently the area is being cleared of landmines, and the clean-up of soil and sediment is expected to start in earlier 2012. The $32m (£19.7m) project will remove dioxin from 71 acres of land, which was found in 2009 by a study conducted by Canadian environmental firm Hatfield Consultants to have chemical levels that were 300-400 times higher than international limits ().
This marks the first step in the right direction, and we hope that the pendulum continues to swing at increasing speed. In the meantime though, more needs to be done for those who are affected by Agent Orange. More funding is needed to clean up hot spots, provide comprehensive awareness campaigns for the local population, and provide long term care for those with Agent Orange related disabilities.
Vietnam Relief Services, continues to act as a catalyst to push for action, to push for accountability, and to push for the wellbeing of those who have been affected by Agent Orange. By cooperating with local groups, and local authorities, VRS continues to run highly effective awareness campaigns, targeted events, and supports the wellbeing of the disabled in Vietnam.