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The Legacy of Agent Orange

(Beyond Pesticides, September 19, 2007) In Vietnam, attempts continue to be made to protect villages from the ongoing threat of Agent Orange, used by American forces to deforest the jungle canopy in the Vietnam War over 30 years ago, according to the New York Times. Reforestation and fencing are being carried out to prevent local animals and residents from being exposed to soil contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-Dioxin (TCDD), a potent dioxin contaminant of Agent Orange.

Phung Tuu Boi, forester and director of the Center for Assistance in Nature Conservation and Community Development in Hanoi, is attempting to reforest thousands of hectares in central Vietnam. However, his main concern is the dioxin that taints the soil and the local residents most at risk since they live off the land.

“The local people are poor and uneducated, and they don’t understand. Children come here to play and they collect insects and other things to eat,” said Mr. Boi.

TCDD is the most dangerous form of dioxin and the levels found in soil samples from Central Vietnam are more than 200 times the “acceptable” level set by the US EPA. Efforts to educate the residents about the dangers of dioxin are difficult since most cannot read and many speak local tribal dialects and not Vietnamese. Clean up of dioxin is very costly and would likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. According to William H. Farland, a former scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency who is vice president for research at Colorado State University, “It’s very expensive to clean dioxin up to background levels. The main issue is to prevent human exposure, not just to clean up the soils.”

Mr. Boi is therefore attempting to protect residents by constructing a fence made of thorn-laden trees to keep residents and animals away from dioxin hot spots, hoping to prevent the next generation from being exposed to dioxin contaminated soil. Mr. Boi hopes the green fence will not only discourage local use of the contaminated area, but also provide an economic incentive to leave the barrier intact since the trees produce a fruit that residents can sell to make soaps and medicines.The U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange and other defoliants on Vietnam from 1962 to 1971, which destroyed large areas of forests. Areas that once served as American Special Forces air bases that stored barrels of Agent Orange have now become “hot spots” for dioxin contamination.

Dioxin, which takes decades to break down, accumulates in animal fat resulting in many grazing livestock contaminated with high levels of dioxins. Poor sanitation and a local diet that relies on fowl that peck on tainted soil keep dioxin exposure a constant threat to the locals. So far, 60 of the 240 families in the area surrounding the “hot spot” have health problems, such as limb deformities and deafness that have been blamed on dioxin. Elevated levels of TCDD have also been found in breast milk and blood of the local residents.

The effects of Agent Orange are not only felt in Vietnam. Studies have found that US war veterans exposed to Agent Orange have developed chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkins lymphoma and diabetes. Many children of veterans exposed have been affected by their parents’ exposure to the chemical and show a wide range of symptoms.

Source: New York Times


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