(Beyond Pesticides, June 18, 2010) A panel of U.S. and Vietnamese policy makers, scientists, and citizens released a report on Wednesday urging the U.S. government and other donors to provide $300 million to clean up contaminated sites and care for Vietnamese harmed by exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the U.S. to defoliate large swaths of forest during the Vietnam War that was contaminated by dioxin. Dioxin is a very persistent toxicant that clings to the soil and sediments, and bioaccumulates in the food chain. Many studies have linked dioxin exposure to a myriad of health effects including cancer, neuropathy, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, and birth defects. This report comes one month before the U.S. and Vietnam will celebrate 15 years of normalized diplomatic relations.
The U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin released the report calling for an estimated $30 million annually for the next 10 years. Since 2007, the U.S. has spent only $9 million on dioxin remediation and assisting disabled Vietnamese.
The report lays out a plan with three phases. The first phase, lasting three years and estimated to cost $100 million, would focus on completing remediation in Da Nang, one of the largest contaminated sites. This effort would then be replicated at other contaminated sites. The U.S. and Vietnam would also work together to research the extent to which forests were damaged, leading to greater U.S. support for Vietnamese efforts to reforest damaged areas. The final phase would be to create a nationwide survey of disabled people and a birth defects registry. It would also involve training health care workers, screening expectant mothers, and monitoring child development. This would improve the nation’s health care system without the need to debate whether each disability was caused by Agent Orange. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates 3 million Vietnamese children and adults are victims of dioxin exposure, but the U.S. disagrees. It attributes many birth defects to issues such as malnutrition.
The U.S. military dumped 20 million gallons of herbicides including Agent Orange on the former South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, in order to defoliate forests shielding guerrilla fighters. The report estimates the herbicides destroyed 5 million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of crops. Heavily sprayed areas include inland forests near the demarcation zone as well as North and Northwest of Saigon, and along the borders of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Mangrove forests along major shipping routes and on the southernmost peninsula of Vietnam were also heavily sprayed.
Agent Orange was given its name because it was stored in orange striped drums and contained the active ingredients 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. 2,4,5-T contained minute traces of highly toxic 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (also called TCDD or simply dioxin) and is now banned. However, 2,4-D is still one of the most widely used herbicides on lawns, school grounds and parks today. It has been linked to cancer, liver damage and endocrine disruption in humans in addition to being toxic to wildlife, pets and beneficial insects. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned to ban the chemical, citing that among other things, extensive scientific evidence pointing to the dangers of 2,4-D have been ignored by EPA during its risk assessment process. The highly toxic chemical can be replaced by cost-competitive and effective management practices widely used in organic agriculture and lawn care.
The Dialogue Group is hoping the U.S. will pay at least half of the $300 million, with the rest coming from corporations, foundations, and other donors. According to a Chicago Tribune watchdog report, this is merely a small sum when compared to the nearly $2 billion paid by the U.S. government each year in disability compensation to US veterans exposed to agent orange.