DA NANG, Vietnam—Part 4 of a Tribune investigation finds that a former U.S. air bases in Vietnam remain highly polluted by defoliants, but the U.S. has done little to clean up the sites it contaminated during the war. Complete coverage >>
When a small Canadian environmental firm started collecting soil samples on a former U.S. air base in a remote Vietnam valley, Thomas Boivin and other scientists were skeptical they'd find evidence proving herbicides used there by the U.S. military decades ago still posed a health threat.
But results showed levels of the cancer-causing poison dioxin were far greater than guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for residential areas.
That's when Boivin, now president of the firm, says he had his "Eureka moment."
Vancouver-based Hatfield Consultants began tracing the toxin through the food chain, from the soil and sediment of nearby ponds to the fat of ducks and fish to the blood and breast milk of villagers living on the contaminated site.
The breast milk of one woman from the study contained dioxin levels six times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe. She also had a 2-year-old child with spina bifida, one of the birth defects for which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs compensates the children of U.S. veterans.
Since then, Hatfield and Vietnamese scientists have taken samples from nearly 3,000 former U.S. military bases scattered throughout South Vietnam and identified 28 "hot spots," including three highly contaminated sites around populated areas in Da Nang, Bien Hoa and Phu Cat.
Their findings offered a way to recast the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam as a solvable -- and urgent -- issue. Instead of a messy controversy over birth defects and other complex health issues, the discovery of persistent contamination focused attention on a measurable, present-day problem that could be addressed.
Yet since the first Hatfield study was published in 2000, the U.S. government has done little to help clean up the sites it contaminated during the Vietnam War, providing just $6 million to tackle both the serious health issues related to the contamination and the significant environmental damage caused by the defoliants.
Boivin and others who have worked on the issue say that since the first studies came out, there has been more cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam. Hatfield started working in Vietnam pro bono in hopes of landing Canadian government subsidies, but the firm later became committed to studying the problem, donating hundreds of hours and resources.
"During the past few years in particular, there's been huge movement on the U.S. and Vietnamese sides," Boivin said. "It's very encouraging to see."
Yet the United States' overall pace of action on polluted former military bases in Vietnam has been slow. Officials in Vietnam and the U.S. have not settled on an exact cost, but the price tag to clean up Vietnam War-era hot spots would run into the tens of millions of dollars.
"There's no question that there are levels of dioxin in Vietnam that are harmful, and there is no doubt that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces storing it there has had a cause and effect," said Michael Marine, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2004 to 2007. "It's a relatively easy argument to make that the U.S. should help to address this issue."
An invisible threatThe impact of Agent Orange isn't felt only by soldiers and civilians who were directly sprayed on. The chemical has had a lasting impact in and around the bases where it was stored -- and spilled.
When Nguyen Van Dung took a job cleaning sewers at the Da Nang airport in 1996, he didn't know that U.S. forces had stored hundreds of thousands of gallons of herbicides there during the Vietnam War or that those herbicides contained a highly toxic compound linked to more than a dozen illnesses. He didn't know that the toxin had soaked into the soil and remained there at dangerously high levels.
Dung moved with his wife, Thu, and their healthy infant daughter into a one-room, cinder-block house next door to the former U.S. air base. During the next 13 years, Dung and Thu, who also works at the airport, had two children with devastating illnesses, including rare blood and bone diseases, that the couple suspect were caused by contamination at the airport.
Their second daughter died when she was 7, and now their 10-month-old son, who suffers from the same ailments, requires painful blood transfusions every month to stay alive.
"I am a man, and men seldom cry," said Dung, 41, who sat cross-legged on the floor in his home, tears welling in his eyes, as Thu cradled the frail infant in her lap. "But every time my son has a blood transfusion, I cry."
During the past three years, Hatfield and Vietnamese scientists measured levels of dioxin in the blood and breast milk of workers at the Da Nang airport that were as much as 100 times higher than WHO safety guidelines.