DANANG, Vietnam — Vo Duoc fought back tears while sharing the news that broke his heart: A few days earlier, he received test results confirming that he and 11 family members have elevated levels of dioxin lingering in their blood.
The family lives in a two-story house near a former U.S. military base in Danang where the defoliant Agent Orange was stored during the Vietnam War, which ended nearly four decades ago. Mr. Duoc, 58, sells steel for a living and has diabetes, while his wife battles breast cancer and their daughter has remained childless after suffering repeated miscarriages.
For years, Mr. Duoc thought the ailments were unrelated. After seeing the blood tests, he now suspects his family unwittingly ingested dioxin from fish, vegetables and well water contaminated by Agent Orange.
Dioxin – a chemical linked to cancer, birth defects and other disabilities – has seeped into Vietnam's soils and watersheds, creating a lasting war legacy that remains a thorny issue between the United States and Vietnam's communist government.
Washington has been slow to respond, but on Thursday the United States for the first time will begin cleaning up dioxin from Agent Orange that was stored at the former military base, now part of Danang's airport.
"It's better late than never that the U.S. government is cleaning up the environment for our children," Mr. Duoc said in Danang, surrounded by family members sitting on plastic stools. "They have to do as much as possible and as quickly as possible."
The $43 million project begins as Vietnam and the United States forge closer ties to boost trade and counter China's rising influence in the disputed South China Sea.
U.S. double standard?
Washington still challenges a claim by Hanoi that 3 million to 4 million Vietnamese were affected by toxic chemicals sprayed by U.S. planes during the war to eliminate jungle cover for guerrilla fighters. The White House argues that the actual number is far lower and other environmental factors are to blame for the health issues.
That position irks Vietnamese, who say the United States maintains a double standard in acknowledging the consequences of Agent Orange.
The United States has paid billions of dollars in disability claims to American servicemen who developed illnesses associated with dioxin after exposure to the defoliant during the Vietnam War.
In 2004, a group of Vietnamese citizens filed suit in a U.S. court against companies that produced the chemical, but the case was dismissed and the Supreme Court declined to take it up.
Until a few years ago, Washington took a defensive position whenever Agent Orange was raised because no one had determined how much dioxin remained in Vietnam's soil and watersheds, and the United States worried about potential liabilities, said Susan Hammond, director of the War Legacies Project, a U.S. nonprofit organization that mainly focuses on the Agent Orange legacy from the Vietnam War.
"There was a lot of the blame game going on, and it led nowhere," she said. "But now at least progress is being made."
Over the past five years, Congress has appropriated about $49 million for environmental remediation and about $11 million to help people living with disabilities in Vietnam regardless of cause. Experts have identified three former U.S. air bases -- in Danang in central Vietnam and the southern locations of Bien Hoa and Phu Cat -- as hot spots where Agent Orange was mixed, stored and loaded onto planes.
The U.S. military dumped some 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides on about a quarter of former South Vietnam from 1962 to 1971.
The defoliant decimated about 5 million acres of forest -- roughly the size of Massachusetts -- and another 500,000 acres of crops.
Although Washington remains a vocal critic of Vietnam's human rights record, it also views the country as a key ally in its push to re-engage militarily in the Asia-Pacific region.
Blight on relationship
The Agent Orange issue has continued to blight the U.S.-Vietnam relationship because dioxin can linger in soils and at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations, entering the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.
Vietnam's Ministry of Defense and the United States now plan to excavate 2.6 million cubic feet of soil from the airport and heat it to a high temperature in storage tanks until the dioxin is removed. The project is expected to be completed in four years.
Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Washington-based Aspen Institute, said Thursday's start of the cleanup "marks the coming together of our two countries to achieve a practical solution to dioxin contamination."
His organization coordinates the U.S-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, which connects prominent American and Vietnamese scientists, health experts and former officials.
The group in May said that $450 million is needed to clean up dioxin hot spots, provide services to people with disabilities and repair damaged landscapes across Vietnam over the next five years.
The United States is rolling out a $9 million project to address disabilities in Vietnam through 2015, but Washington continues to dispute Vietnam's claim that dioxin has caused health problems there.
A plan that Vietnam's government released in June lays out goals for dealing with Agent Orange but does not give a price tag.
Every penny counts for Nguyen Thi Hien, who directs three rehabilitation and vocational training centers for 150 children and young adults with disabilities in Danang on a budget of roughly $5,000 per month.
The children, busy drawing and making plastic flowers that are sold to raise funds, suffer from a range of physical and mental ailments that Mr. Hien says are linked to dioxin.
Vo Duoc, the steel salesman, will travel to the capital, Hanoi, next month to receive treatment for his diabetes. But he said he is more concerned about what will happen to his six grandchildren, who have not yet been tested for dioxin.
"They had nothing to do with the war," Mr. Duoc said. "But I live in fear that they'll test positive like me."