Deadly ghost of Agent Orange still lurks
November 14, 2006
By Anthony Faiola
The Washington Post
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company