A new study of dioxin contamination at the Da Nang Airport has found alarming amounts of the toxin in people, fish and soil, with some areas tainted by over 360 times more dioxin than deemed safe by the WHO.
The airport is widely recognized as a dioxin 'hot spot' due to its high exposure to the poison via the Agent Orange stored there during the Vietnam War. Local residents have been suffering the vicious effects of the toxic defoliant for over 40 years, including birth defects and cancer.
Between 1961 and 1971, the US Army sprayed some 80 million liters of Agent Orange, containing 366 kilograms of the highly toxic dioxin (2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, or TCDD), over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam.
The November report on three studies (2003-2009) conducted by Canadian firm Hatfield Consultants in coordination with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment's Office 33, tasked with evaluating the lingering Agent Orange problem, concludes that over time dioxin has moved from the airport's former mixing, loading and storage areas into the nearby Sen Lakes, and "ultimately into humans via consumption of fish, contact with soils and sediments and even the inhalation of dust."
This exposure "is directly linked to historical Agent Orange use on the Da Nang Airport," according to the Ford Foundation-funded project.
360 times more poisonous
Dioxin levels in earth samples at the northern end of the airport, where the storage and mixing facilities were located, were found at levels of up to 361,000 picograms/gram (a picogram is one-trillionth of a gram) dry weight, while the WHO stipulates safety levels at no more than 1,000pg/g for residential and recreational areas.
Fish from the Sen Lakes showed TCDD toxic equivalent (TEQ) concentrations of up to 8,350 pg/g wet weight in fat tissues, more than 400 times the acceptable levels set by Health Canada.
The maximum TCDD concentration found in local resident's blood was 1,340 pg/g lipid basis. "The typical range of TCDD in the general population of industrialized countries has been reported as 3 to 7 pg/g," said Hatfield.
In all breast milk samples analyzed, TEQs exceeded the WHO tolerable daily intake guideline of 4 pg TEQ/kg, said the report.
Home is where the truth is
At congressional hearings on Agent Orange in May last year, US State Department Official Scot Marciel flatly rejected governmental responsibility for any health effects related to the Agent Orange the US government ordered sprayed on Vietnam.
In a report released by the US Embassy in Hanoi this September, the government again evaded responsibility.
"Any determination of the perceived negative health effects of Agent Orange and its contaminant, dioxin, should be based on credible scientific research that meets international standards," said the report.
But Dr. Arnold Schecter, a Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas who traveled to Vietnam for years studying dioxin firsthand, told Thanh Nien Weekly that the US government had to look no further than its own studies to find credible scientific research determining the links between Agent Orange and health defects.
"The US government - the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Toxicology Program, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry - and the WHO all clearly conclude, as do many dioxin scientists, that TCDD, the most toxic of the dioxins, causes cancer in humans."
The chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange such as Monsanto and Dow have also done their best to circumvent blame.
A statement released by Monsanto earlier this month said Agent Orange research "has not conclusively demonstrated a cause-and-effect link between spraying of Agent Orange and the diseases that were evaluated."
Dow defends itself on its website:
"The scientific consensus is that when the collective human evidence is reviewed, it doesn't show that Agent Orange caused veteran's illnesses."
But both statements fly in the face of scientific consensus.
The highly respected International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a journal of the WHO, has stated that exposure to dioxin can cause cancer in humans.
IARC studies found that "2,3,7,8- TCDD is an unprecedented multi-site carcinogen... and is carcinogenic in humans," according to the report.
The Obama administration earlier this year dedicated US$3 million to dioxin cleanup efforts in Da Nang, adding to $3million previously pledged by the Bush administration.
Dr. Wayne Dwernychuk, an Agent Orange specialist and retired senior scientist and advisor with Hatifield, called the move a "commendable step," but argued that in order to provide a full solution the commitment had to be more substantial "with the inclusion of US and other international experts to apply appropriate technologies to protect the Vietnamese population from ingesting dioxin from 'hot spots' shown to be highly contaminated."
Professor Vo Quy, a member of the Joint Vietnam-US Dialogue Committee, told Thanh Nien Weekly that "dioxin decontamination at the Da Nang airport is estimated to cost at least US$14 million-17 million."
"We hope the US side will expedite disbursement of the earmarked support."
Dwernychuk said that although the sums were small, the earmarks spelled hope.
"I feel that the significance of the nearly $2 million is not the actual sum of funds made available... it is the fact that US government dollars will be used to specifically address a hot spot.
"How many years has it taken to get to this point? Nearly 35. Finally some significant movement on the part of the US. It is hoped that in tandem with these funds is the understanding and acceptance by the US that Da Nang is not the only area in need of remediation ... I am hopeful."