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Planned Agent Orange cleanup met with optimism in Vietnam

By Sarah Dallof  |  Posted Jan 1st, 2013 @ 10:23pm


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HANOI, Vietnam — Nguyen Thuy Linh, 8, concentrated on the page in front of her. On it, her teacher had outlined the numbers 1 through 10 in short dashes, and Linh was painstakingly tracing over them with the blue marker clutched in her hand.

As she completed each number she said it out loud in Vietnamese. "Bon," she announced as she finished the number 4 and starts on five. "Nam."

This is good progress for the young student at the Vietnamese Friendship Village in Hanoi, Vietnam. When she first arrived a short time ago, she spoke in noises and grunts instead of words. Now she's learned a few simple phrases and greetings.

"We're helping her to communicate very slowly," said her teacher, Nguyen Thi Oanh, speaking through an interpreter. "It's challenging because she cannot pay attention for long."

Officials at the Vietnam Friendship Village believe Linh's disabilities, and the disabilities of all the young people they serve, were caused by Agent Orange. During the Vietnam War, 20 million gallons of the herbicide were used by the U.S. military to defoliate acres upon of acres of jungle and destroy crops.

What is Agent Orange?

Agent Orange is the name given to a blend of herbicides the U.S. military sprayed from 1961 to 1971 to remove plants and leaves from foliage in Vietnam that provided enemy cover. The name "Agent Orange" came from the orange identifying stripe around the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored.

Source: US. Department of Veterans Affairs

The chemical contains the toxin dioxin, which remains in the soil and water for decades. It has been linked to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses, such as Parkinson's disease.

At any given time, there are 120 residents at the Vietnam Friendship Village who will stay an average of three years to receive schooling and medical care. The organization was founded in 1988 by American Vietnam War veteran George Mizo.

Mizo, whose death in 2002 is believed to have been caused in part by his exposure to dioxin, designed the village to be a place of peace and healing. Director Dang Vu Dung was also a veteran of the war but fought on the side opposite Mizo. Now his mission is the same as his former enemy's.

"We work with our whole heart. We try to help so more kids can reintegrate into society," Dang said.

According to the American Public Health Association, between 2.1 million and 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to dioxin during the Vietnam War.

The U.S. government has never acknowledged a link between dioxin and the rise of certain illnesses in areas where Agent Orange was sprayed and stored.

The topic remains a sensitive issue in relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. However, ties between the two countries have been strengthening, and in December the U.S. announced that for the first time it will begin cleaning up dioxin lingering in the soil in the central Vietnamese port city of Da Nang.

"We'll be treating the soil and sediment and putting 73,000 cubic meters of soil and sediment into a pile structure and heating it at a high enough temperature that will break down the dioxin," explained Kyung "KC" Choe, general development office director at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The affected area is a former Agent Orange storage site, which has since become part of Da Nang's airport. Work at the site has been delayed until 2013 due to the county's annual rainy season. When it begins, the cleanup will take four years to complete at a cost of $43 million.

At any given time, there are 120 residents at the Vietnam Friendship Village who will stay an average of three years to receive schooling and medical care. Some are believed to be suffering the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

"We wanted to make sure that whatever is done is done right ... and that the soil is absolutely clean, according to international dioxin standards," Choe said.

Already, discussions have begun about conducting an environmental assessment in Bien Hoa, a contaminated area in the southern part of Vietnam. According to Choe, this is the first step of a second potential cleanup project.

Since 1989, the U.S. government has provided more than $54 million in assistance to people in Vietnam with disabilities, regardless of cause, through direct service and improvements to the overall health system. This year they're also preparing to launch public health interventions aimed at reducing the risk of dioxin exposure to those living in contaminated areas.

"The single most effective way to address health concerns or health risks associated with dioxin in the environment is to prevent people from being exposed to dioxin in the first place," said Eric Frater, environment, science, technology and health unit chief at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.

Reaction to the announcement has been generally positive, although there are cries of "took long enough" and "too little, too late" on various message boards both for American and Vietnamese publications. The Vietnam Friendship Village is encouraged by the news.

"It's very important that the Americans are taking responsibility to clean up dioxin near Da Nang airport and other places in Vietnam," Dang said. "I think they also have a responsibility there to support foundations, families, children and others suffering from Agent Orange."

It will be a long time before the Vietnam Friendship Village sees a reduction of people needing their services. While Dang is hopeful that four generations may be enough to lessen the effects of dioxin, the risk remains.

Li Van Do, 22, is all too aware of this. His health problems, which he says are the result of his father's exposure to Agent Orange during the war, have confined him to a wheelchair. At the Vietnam Friendship Village he has learned how to embroider detailed artwork depicting traditional Vietnamese scenes.

"I hope in the future, if I have a wife, I won't have children," he said, "because my children could be affected by Agent Orange as well."

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