Cleaning up 'hot spots' will cost 300 million more | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 15, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 15, 2010

Cleaning up 'hot spots' will cost 300 million more

A war doesn't really end when the last soldier leaves the battlefield and goes home. Rebuilding in the aftermath of the destruction a war leaves behind can be a monumental task to undertake. Any war ends with terrible costs to both the winner and the loser. There can never be any lasting happiness about the effects of war.
The war in Vietnam didn't end with the fall of Saigon. America spent $165 billion dollars to finance the Vietnam War. The casualties on both sides were enormous. On the US side 58,000 died. On the Vietnamese side over 2 million -- including civilians -- people died. After fighting in Vietnam from the 1960s to 1975, US forces withdrew from South Vietnam.
July 22 marked the 15th year of US/Vietnam diplomatic ties. At that time US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was on an Asian tour. The last stop for Clinton was Hanoi. There, in a joint statement with the Vietnamese foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem, she addressed the impact of Agent Orange -- the dioxin that was used during the Vietnam War.
As part of a US/Vietnam dialogue group, and as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Clinton expressed her support in endorsing $300 million 10 year plan to be developed by the Aspen Institute for the clean-up of "hot spots" in Vietnam.
In a press conference Clinton said: "We have been working with Vietnam for about nine years to try to remedy the effects of Agent Orange. I will work to increase our operation and making even greater progress together."
This issue has been a lingering source of bitterness between the two countries even after they established normal relationship. Vietnam demands that US must pay repartition because of the damage dioxin caused.
This cancer-causing substance was sprayed over the foliage of Vietnam. The herbicides were used to remove dense jungle cover, to destroy crops and clear vegetation from the nearby areas of the US bases in order to prevent the Viet Cong guerrillas from taking cover. The spraying was done systematically from 1962-1971.
The airport in Bien Hoa near Ho Chi Minch city was most contaminated. Even to this day, people have to wear waterproof disposable shoes when they land at the airport. The two other US army bases that are referred as "hot spots" are Da Nang and Phu Cat, with high levels of dioxin contamination.
In Da Nang, which is a major port city, there is still a lingering smell of the defoliant. Da Nang airport was a major US base and a supply depot for the US troops. Now, less than a hundred yards away from this danger zone, people are living and children playing.
Known as Operation Ranch Hand, the Army Chemical Corps sprayed dioxin from airplanes, helicopters. For some areas boats were used and the soldiers sprayed them with backpack sprayers that were especially designed to carry out this task.
The elite members of the Special Forces were called in to clear of some of the dense forest foliage. These herbicides came in huge drums with orange stripes -- hence the name.
"Dioxin is a dangerous and powerful hormone disrupting chemical. By binding to a cell's hormone receptor, it literally modifies the functioning and genetic mechanism of the cell, causing a wide range of effects, from cancer to reduce immunity to nervous system disorders to miscarriages and birth deformity." Human bodies have no defence against this toxic component.
A Red Cross report said on its website: "About three million people are victims of Agent Orange, including some 150,000 children with genetic defects." The samples that were collected from soil, sediment, food and human blood for a study, showed elevated concentrations of toxic chemicals, which were much higher than the normal limit.
During the Vietnam War about a third of the land was sprayed. At the time the risk to health from dioxin was not a major concern. The drug manufacturing companies conducted tests on lab animals and humans, and assured the military of its safety.
Some years after the Vietnam War ended members of US army and Vietnamese people became victims of dioxin. That dangerous chemical entered the body through breathing and contaminated food and water, and was also absorbed through the pores of the skin.
Over the years Vietnam, has blamed dioxin mixture as the cause of birth deformities, and it has also been linked to cancer. Some studies performed by the National Academy of Sciences in the US found three types of cancer in American soldiers who served in Vietnam.
Dioxin studies were also conducted outside of US. A study at Massey University in New Zealand showed that their soldiers who fought in Vietnam had disrupted DNA.
It is also believed that the cases of spinal bifida were also the result of dioxin. Vietnam's main concern now is that, without immediate clean-up, dioxin will keep on contaminating the environment. More people will be exposed to it.
A Vietnamese doctor testified before the joint session of Congress last week that more than three million Vietnamese have suffered because of dioxin.
So far, the US Congress has allotted $9 million to clean-up dioxin in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has spent about $5 million in cleaning Bien-Hoa airport. UNDP, along with the Global Environment Facility, will fund a project for cleaning. Vietnam's Ministry of Natural Resource will administer the project. The UN recently put up another $5 million for the clean-up operation at Bien Hoa airport.
Apart from the Vietnamese people, neighbouring countries have also raised concerns about health related issues. They want the clean-up to be done as soon as possible. Agent Orange was stored in other countries as well.
Along with the Vietnamese people, thousands of military families in US are suffering because of the aftermath of Agent Orange.
During the Vietnam War, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt accepted the drug manufacturers' assurance that Agent Orange was safe enough to be used by the army. His son served in Vietnam. He became ill at age 42, and died. His grandson was born with birth defects.
In his own words: "I cannot prove in court that Agent Orange is the cause of all medical problems, disorders and cancers reported by Vietnam veterans, or of their children's severe birth defects. But I am convinced that it is."

Zeenat Khan is a freelance writer based in the United States.

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