Sunday, January 18, 2015

The terrible legacy of Agent Orange

Forty years after war ended, Washington begins decontamination of worst-affected areas in Vietnam.


. . .Last week, 40 years after the war ended, the US began a programme to try to decontaminate the worst-affected parts of the country, but even if the belated action grows into something far larger, it can never deal with the dreadful legacy of Agent Orange.

In a museum in the suburbs of Saigon, there is an exhibit where hundreds of photos of deformed adults, children and babies hang next to a copy of a letter which Tran Thi Hoan wrote to Barack Obama in 2009. After describing how doctors discouraged her from starting a family, fearing her children would be born with similar defects, she asked if the President would "spare a little time to resolve this forgotten problem", after decades of quibbling over the issue in Washington.

Between 1962 and 1971, the US air force dropped around 20 million gallons of the herbicide during Operation Ranch Hand. Around 4,000 villages and communes in South Vietnam were sprayed, leaving at least 4.5 million Vietnamese exposed to the substance, according to census reports taken at the time. Five million acres of farmland were destroyed in the process (the size of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Northumberland combined), of which two million remain barren today.

. . . Early on in the campaign, US planes dropped pamphlets written in Vietnamese assuring farmers that the chemicals were harmless to humans and animals. In spite of alleged warnings from chemical companies that the herbicide was potentially harmful, the US reportedly dropped the chemical at a higher concentration than what was recommended for destroying foliage.

As a result, the Vietnam Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese were left suffering from spina bifida, Parkinson's and heart diseases as a result. Since then, at least 150,000 children have been born with birth defects, a number which the Vietnamese government claims could be as high as half a million.

Various court cases and pleas to the US government by Vietnamese victims have proved fruitless, whereas American veterans exposed to Agent Orange have had their appeals answered. Families of former US soldiers suffering because of dioxin poisoning get up to $1,500 (£956) a month in compensation, while Vietnamese families who have been affected receive around 80,000 dong a month (just over $5) in government support for their disabled children.

In 1984, chemical companies that manufactured the herbicide settled a class-action suit by US veterans for $180m. Then, in 2010, 200,000 veterans filed claims based on a policy change by the Department of Veterans Affairs which gave them easier access to compensation for health problems caused by exposure to the defoliant.

Vietnamese victims filed a similar lawsuit in 2004. The case brought by the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange against the chemical companies failed, with the court ruling that the herbicide was used to protect US troops against ambush and was not intended to be used against human populations. The manufacturers were also protected by a contract with the US government which employed them to manufacture and supply them with the herbicide during the war.

For years, Washington has avoided discussing the Agent Orange-related health problems among the Vietnamese and the need for more scientific research into the problem. Since 2007 it has given about $60m for environmental restoration and social services in Vietnam, but last week's project is its first direct involvement in decontaminating areas affected by dioxin.

The $43m project, which began last Thursday, is expected to be completed in four years. It covers a 47-acre site in the coastal city of Da Nang, one of many "hot spots" that have been identified on the perimeter of former US bases where Agent Orange was handled; 50 years on, dioxins still into the surrounding soil, posing a risk to the population.

Even though this is a step forward by the US in a relationship with Vietnam that has been hampered by the issue, the lasting legacy of Agent Orange will need a far more substantial input to repair the damage. 

In 2007, the non-partisan Aspen Institute determined that it would cost the US government $300m over 10 years to eliminate the remaining health threat and improve the lives of disabled people in Vietnam.


Letter of Vietnam student Tran Thi Hoan 

victim of Agent Orange 

sent to US President Obama

Dear President Barack Obama! 
My name is Trần Thị Hoan, 23, born in Đức Linh District, Bình Thuận Province, (south) Việt Nam. I am a second generation victim of Agent Orange, one among the plaintiffs, representing millions of Agent Orange victims, in a lawsuit against 37 U.S. chemical manufacturers in the U.S. Federal Court, two richest of which are Dow and Monsanto.  They manufactured deadly defoliants sprayed in the Vietnam wars containing dioxin—it has not only killed living people during the war, but gradually kills their children generations, like me, and goes on to kill the next ones.  It damages my country and other nations beyond imagination. 
I have read your letter to your beloved daughters, especially this excerpt: “These are the things I want for you—to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have. That’s why I’ve taken our family on this great adventure.” I was deeply moved by the love you have for your daughters and the dreams you have for children of other countries, and I dream that certainly you meant also for Vietnam.  I dream that when you were on the campaign trail, and when you were writing those lines, you had some ideas about Agent Orange and its devastating effects on human and environment. I dream when you wrote “And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have” you were actually thinking about innocent children slowly killed by dioxin, and their sufferings, their education in a very poor country like Vietnam will be the same as your daughters in the U.S.  I dream you had in mind what to do to help every child to have the same chances to learn and to dream and grow and thrive like your daughters’. 
May I say something about myself: when I was in junior high school, I studied hard to become a doctor to help people in my home town because they were so poor. But this dream was taken from me.  I was suggested in college not to follow medicine because I was born with no legs and no left hand.  My parents were consumed with grief when I was born and when I started school.  I was suggested not to dream about raising a family for fear that my children would be born deformed like me, and the poison might even take their lives.  You may have guessed from my personal story, one among three million victim stories, what happen to other parents victims of Agent Orange. 
You are a father of two beautiful daughters, and you know how parents love their children.  As you might have known, the U.S. Vietnam veterans, sick from Agent Orange, have gotten remediation for their illnesses, but their children have not. How do their children live a decent life like your daughters?  In the case of my poor country, veterans of the U.S. war and their children and grandchildren have not received any justice from the U.S. courts: they refused to hear our case against the U.S. chemical companies without explanations.  This denial of justice may have rendered void your dream for every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive.  When I toured the U.S. cities last October, I found the American people deeply concerned about the problems of Agent Orange, including lawyers.  I was totally disappointed with the U.S. Supreme Court running away from this question of justice. 
I understand that you are very busy with the urgent matters that face your country, I hope that you would consider the poison from Agent Orange and the lives of its victims with as much a matter of urgency because what they mean to the future of humanity.  I hope that you, a symbol of hope not only for the United States, but also for the world, a father who love his children dearly, and a man of humanity, spare a little time to resolve this forgotten problem.

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