Vietnam War legacy continues to poison humans, livestock

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Experts inspect a dioxin hotspot at the Bien Hoa Airbase in Dong Nai Province, 32 kilometers to the northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The first-ever international study confirmed continued dioxin contamination at the airbase and called for an immediate stop to fish harvesting in the area.

The first international study of dioxin contamination, conducted late last year, has confirmed "elevated levels" of the toxin in fish and other animals at the Bien Hoa Airbase, urging an immediate halt to their consumption.

The Bien Hoa Airbase, and Da Nang and Phu Cat airports are widely recognized as major "dioxin hotspots" because Agent Orange was stored in these areas during the Vietnam War that ended in April 1975. Local residents have suffered the vicious effects of the toxic defoliant, including birth defects and cancer, for more than 40 years.

Between 1961 and 1971, the US army sprayed 80 million liters of Agent Orange, containing 366 kilograms of dioxin over 30,000 square miles of southern Vietnam. Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War.

The study conducted last November by Canadian firm Hatfield Consultants in collaboration with Office 33 of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, confirmed toxic levels of dioxin in fish samples collected from the Bien Hoa Airbase. Dioxin levels in fish were more than 200 times Health Canada fish consumption standards.

The study also confirmed elevated levels of dioxins in blood and breast milk among people who eat fish caught in the airbase area. Human dioxin levels were generally lower than those in Da Nang, but they were still above international standards, according to the study.

The draft report was presented last week at a meeting of the US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange and Dioxin, an independent consortium of scientists, donors and policymakers, in Dong Nai Province, 32 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The final report will be made public after a review by Office 33 and Vietnamese experts, tentatively in May.

Cease fish cultivation

The study confirmed that dioxins continue to enter the aquatic ecosystem and food chain, prompting experts to urge people to immediately put an end to cultivation of fish, ducks, and livestock at Bien Hoa Airbase.

"Fishing and agricultural activities on the Airbase should be halted to prevent future exposure," said Thomas Boivin, Hatfield's Director of International Operations and Partners. He said though Vietnamese scientists have conducted a lot of research in Bien Hoa, this was the first joint Vietnamese-international study on dioxin contamination at the airbase.

Boivin, who is also the project team leader, said the study did not mean to cause panic in all fish consumers in Bien Hoa. "It is important to note that we are talking about aquaculture on the airbase only, and not in the city of Bien Hoa"¦ Fish from Bien Hoa Airbase is the concern, not general fish quality in the city of Bien Hoa."

"A simple way for people to protect themselves is to carefully clean their fish, and not consume the internal organs this will help to significantly reduce the risk of dioxin exposure."

The Dong Nai provincial administration estimates that around 13,000 Agent Orange victims live in the province, a majority of whom struggle with stark poverty and cannot fend for themselves.

Right a serious wrong

Despite the overwhelming evidence, the US has continually been calling for more research on the effects of dioxin contamination in Vietnam. While it has acknowledged 15 medical conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure among its own veterans, it remains pitifully apathetic to those on the receiving end of the spray.

Vietnam and the US signed an agreement late last year to undertake a dioxin decontamination project at Da Nang Airport which aims to remove all toxins by October 2013. The US government pledged US$16.9 million to the project.

However, Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, vice chair of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA), said, "According to some experts, only the cleanup and remediation just in one area of high concentration is estimated to be $60 million." Phuong has conducted extensive research on the impact of Agent Orange on breast milk in Vietnam.

Activists reiterated that dioxin contamination and its effects on Vietnam's population is not the sole responsibility of Vietnam.

"The United States should be a significant player in the remedial measures that must be undertaken to right a very serious and significant wrong done to Vietnam," said Wayne Dwernychuk, an Agent Orange specialist and retired senior scientist at Hatfield.

"Politics has for too many decades played a muting role toward international responsibility for the dioxin contaminant issue in Vietnam"¦ this must be overcome and focus placed on the wellbeing of humanity, and particularly those most affected by wartime use of Agent Orange," Dwernychuk said.

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