Saturday, February 2, 2008

HANOI — More than three decades after the Vietnam War, the United States and Vietnam have just completed temporary steps to contain dioxin contamination at a former U.S. air base in Danang.

But the U.S. government, as well as U.S. foundations and corporations, should contribute more money to clean up the site permanently, members of a joint American-Vietnamese working group on Agent Orange said yesterday.

The panel members visited Vietnam this week to meet with American and Vietnamese officials and see the containment work done in Danang, which was completed on Jan. 15.

It will cost at least $14 million to remove dioxin from the site, one of several Agent Orange “hot spots” in Vietnam, said the panel members, who are specialists on the environmental, health and political consequences of the herbicide.

“What was once a sensitive and taboo subject between our two countries is now being worked on cooperatively and effectively,” said Susan Beresford, former president of the Ford Foundation, who convened the Agent Orange working group.

In May, Congress set aside $3 million to clean up Vietnamese sites contaminated by Agent Orange and to finance health programs for people who live near them, many of whom suffer serious illnesses and deformities from exposure to dioxin, the highly toxic chemical compound in the defoliant.

Part of the money may be used to pay for cleanup at the old Danang air base, where U.S. troops used to store, mix and load Agent Orange onto planes.

The U.S. sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides across Vietnam during the war to strip Vietnamese guerrillas of ground cover and kill their crops.

While the threat to the food chain has largely disappeared, dioxin remains in soil and sediment for years and poses a serious health threat to anyone who touches it.

Last year, after years of disagreement, the United States and Vietnam began working together to address the issue.

They commissioned a study of the Danang site that found dioxin levels 300 to 400 times higher than internationally accepted limits, according to Vietnamese officials. The study confirmed that rainwater had carried dioxin into city drains and into parts of a neighboring community that is home to more than 100,000 people.

Blood tests found elevated dioxin levels in several dozen people who regularly fished or harvested lotus flowers from a contaminated lake on the site.

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