Agent Orange's lethal legacy: At former U.S. bases in Vietnam, a potent poison is clear and present danger

Chicago Tribune
By Jason Grotto
December 9, 2009

… 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.

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. …

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. …,0,7839395.story