Nightmare without end

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A Vietnamese victim of Agent Orange struggles to lead a normal life even as she fears the deadly chemical will poison future generations

Agent Orange victim Tran Van Bao (R), 18, is pictured holding a piece of paper as a mobile phone to make a call at a hospice in Vietnam's Da Nang City on June 16

It had happened almost 20 years before she was born, but Dinh Thi Hoang Loan has regretted the event every day of her life.

"I wish the date of August 10, 1961 was just a nightmare."

Fifty years on, the nightmare is very real.

August 10, 1961 was the day the US began spraying Agent Orange over large swaths of southern Vietnam.

Loan, now 31, has the same dreams as other Vietnamese women - a stable job and her own family.

But as an Agent Orange victim, "I know a family of my own would be far from realistic," Loan wrote in an email to Thanh Nien Weekly.

Loan was born with curled-up hands and curved legs. She can barely speak and interacts with others chiefly through writing.

She has been living in Bien Hoa Town, just 35 kilometers to the northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, since she was a child. The town is also home to the Bien Hoa Airbase, a former US military base during the war.  The airbase and the airports of Da Nang and Phu Cat in central Vietnam have been recognized as "dioxin hotspots" places where Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides were stored, loaded and spilled by US military personnel.

The most recent study, conducted by Canadian environmental firm Hatfield Consultants and released last week, confirmed the lingering effects of dioxin contamination at the airbase.

"I am expecting the poison that has deformed me to continue disabling future generations in Bien Hoa," Loan said.

Unmitigated disaster

Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange containing 366 kilograms of the highly toxic dioxin over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam. Dioxin stays in the soil and sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.

Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese citizens were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides (which have been linked to cancers, birth defects and other chronic diseases) during the Vietnam War that ended in April 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross.

Eighty-two percent of Vietnamese surveyed in an Associated Press-GfK Poll last year said that the US should be doing more to help people suffering from illnesses associated with the herbicide, including children with birth defects.

The US Congress appropriated an initial US$3 million in 2007 for cleaning up dioxin hotspots in Vietnam and the figure has since jumped to $32 million. But while the US has provided assistance to Vietnamese with disabilities regardless of their cause, it maintains that there is no clear link between Agent Orange and health problems.

"The Bien Hoa study shows beyond any doubt the responsibility of the US military in the dissemination of a toxic substance, dioxin, in the local environment of the Bien Hoa Airbase," said Wayne Dwernychuk, an Agent Orange specialist and retired senior scientist at Hatfield.

"Further, this study confirms the food web pathway of dioxin from US military action from the physical to the biological environment and into humans," Dwernychuk said.

"Given the international acceptance of dioxin being a significant human carcinogen, this, in the eyes of any "˜reasonable' human being, should be enough to spur remedial action regardless of the so-called lack of a scientific link between exposure and specific health effects." 

On June 17, Vietnam and the US began the first phase of a joint plan to clean up environmental damage caused by Agent Orange at a former US airbase in the central city of Da Nang. Vietnam's Ministry of Defense has already begun sweeping areas around the former base for unexploded ordnance. The ministry will

begin working with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to remove dioxin from soil and sediment at the site some time early next year. The cleanup seeks to remove dioxin from 71 acres (29 hectares) of land at the Da Nang site, where a 2009 Hatfield study found that toxin levels were 300 to 400 times higher than international limits.

"Decades of advancing a wall of denials and obfuscations by the US now appear to be crumbling slowly in the acceptance of significant responsibility for their actions during the conflict"¦ Help for cleanup of Da Nang has come, and I fully expect help will be forthcoming for Bien Hoa and Phu Cat," Dwernychuk said.

Unless drastic remedial efforts are made, dioxin, which has a half-life of 100 years meaning it will take 100 years for it to fall half its initial strength would still be contaminating the land and water of Vietnam in the next century, heard a hearing called in June last year by Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, the then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment.

 "My gosh," Faleomavaega said at the hearing. "We will all be dead and it will still be there."

Poetic license

Though Loan depends on her parents to help her with daily activities, she insisted that she would be able to move on no matter how harsh it would be.

"My greatest aspiration is to have a stable job that would enable me to fend for myself," she said.

She is looking to publish a collection of poems she's written since she was a child. Loan has never attended school and had to learn how to read and write on her own.

Loan added another wish to her hard-to-fulfill wish-list.

"If I had a chance to speak with President Obama and the companies that manufactured Agent Orange, I would ask them to redress the agonies of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange," Loan said. "They have been bearing the brunt of a terrible crime that all people with conscience would strongly protest."

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