Vietnam air base a hot spot that had gone untested
by Ben Stocking
DANANG, VIETNAM — More than 30 years after the Vietnam War ended, the poisonous legacy of Agent Orange has emerged anew with a scientific study that has found extraordinarily high levels of health-threatening contamination at the former U.S. air base at Danang.
"They're the highest levels I've ever seen in my life," said Thomas Boivin, the scientist who conducted the tests this spring. "If this site were in the U.S. or Canada, it would require significant studies and immediate cleanup."
Soil tests by his firm, Hatfield Consultants of Canada, found levels of dioxin, the highly toxic chemical compound in Agent Orange, that were 300 to 400 times higher than internationally accepted limits…
The report has not yet been released, but Boivin and Vietnamese officials summarized its central findings for The Associated Press.
Earlier tests by Hatfield, which has been working in Vietnam since 1994, showed that dioxin levels were safe across most of Vietnam. But until the study of the old air base at Danang, the consulting firm had never had access to some half-dozen "hot spots" where Agent Orange, a defoliant designed to deny Vietnamese jungle cover, was stored and mixed before being loaded onto planes.
The study is the product of a new spirit of cooperation between Washington and Hanoi — after years of disagreement — toward resolving this contentious leftover of the war that ended in 1975.
On a visit to Vietnam last fall, President Bush and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet agreed to work together to address dioxin contamination at old Agent Orange storage sites. They are expected to discuss the issue further when Triet visits Washington next week.
The worst contamination in Danang is confined to a small section of the 2,100-acre base, the former Agent Orange mixing area.
The dioxin poses no immediate threat to the vast majority of the city's nearly 1 million people or the Danang International Airport terminal, which sits on the sprawling site and is widely used by tourists headed for Danang's beaches.
But blood tests found elevated dioxin levels in several dozen people who regularly fished or harvested lotus flowers from a contaminated lake on the site.
Tests also confirmed that rainwater has carried dioxin into city drains, Boivin said. The levels there are only slightly elevated, but could rise if the dioxin isn't properly contained.
The levels fall off dramatically outside the base, said Charles Bailey, Vietnam representative of the Ford Foundation, which financed Hatfield's study. "Nevertheless, it's a public health threat, and it's a risk."
The United States is paying $400,000 for an engineering study of how to clean up the site. The New York-based Ford Foundation is also paying for temporary containment measures, which will begin this summer, before monsoon season.
For some, though, the effort comes too late.
Nguyen Van Dung, 38, and his family have lived just outside the air base since 1990. Dung used to bring home fish he caught in Lotus Lake.
At about age 2, his daughter began manifesting grotesque health problems.
Now 7, Nguyen Thi Kieu Nhung's shin bones curve sharply and appear to be broken in several places. Her right shoulder bone protrudes unnaturally, stretching her skin. She has only two teeth, her right eye bulges from its socket and she has sores on her face. She can't walk.
"If they had acted before, we wouldn't have been exposed," Thu said. "I'm angry, but I don't know what to do. I go to the pagoda twice a month to pray that my daughter will get better."
Her doctors say she won't.
The Vietnamese military has taken some steps to contain the dioxin, but Le Ke Son, Vietnam's top Agent Orange official, said cleaning up Danang and other Agent Orange hotspots is likely to cost at least $40 million, far more than the developing country can afford.
"We have asked the American side to be more active, not just in doing research into the effects of Agent Orange but in overcoming its consequences," Son said. "Until we resolve this issue, we can't really say that we have truly normalized relations."
The U.S. Congress recently set aside $3 million to address dioxin contamination in Vietnam, and U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine said some of it could be used to help pay for a cleanup.
Boivin said the U.S. should take the lead. "There's a real need for the U.S. to step up to the plate here and fund the clean up of these sites," he said.
During the war, U.S. troops stored Agent Orange in 48-gallon barrels at a loading station on the base and diluted it with water before loading it on planes. In the process, the herbicide often spilled onto the ground.
Dioxin attaches itself to dirt and sediment and stays for generations, posing danger to people who touch it. Although not absorbed by crops such as rice, it remains in the fat of fish and other animals that ingest it and can be passed to humans through the food chain.
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