In Vietnam, Agent Orange still makes its deadly presence felt
Four decades later, toxic US defoliant continues to afflict children
Cong Nguyen sits with his mother at their home in Bien Hoa, near Ho Chi Minh City
The intense flushes of heat come several times an hour, as they have done for years, overwhelming the body and propelling the search for cold water. It makes him angry, frustrated – he’d like to know why it happens, but nothing shows up in hospital scans.
There’s an air of torment about Cong Nguyen. The 16-year-old is among four siblings, two of whom suffer the same regular attacks of heat that mean they can never stray far from a water tank. To make matters worse, he has never been able to grow teeth or a full crop of hair; instead, clusters of wispy, thin strands sit above sunken eyes. “Some kids avoid me and laugh at me,” he says from the home he shares with his brothers and parents in Bien Hoa, just outside Ho Chi Minh City.
His mother thinks she knows the cause of his problems. As a teenager in the mid-1970s she would collect wood in a field with her father in southern Vietnam. The two would spend all day among the foliage, cutting down small trees, scavenging in thickets for branches that they would then carry back to their village in the evening.
The field, and those surrounding it, was the site of heavy battles between Viet Cong troops and US forces during the Vietnam War, when the US sprayed millions of liters of toxic Agent Orange across the south of the country in a bid to flush out rebels from the jungles and force civilians to relocate to cities, thereby cutting key support bases for the Viet Cong. His mother, Thuy Nguyen, now 66, remembers as a child hearing the sounds of planes flying overhead. During their foraging after the war, she often found bombshells in the fields, and from time to time would pick them up and examine them. A nearby river had an abundance of fish that she and her father would eat.
It was only several decades later that she was forced to think back over her work in the field. After Cong Nguyen was born, she realized that whatever had afflicted his brother had also afflicted him. Despite the months and years passing, the teeth and hair were refusing to sprout. She took them to a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, where they were referred to a French doctor who asked questions about her childhood. The doctor, already familiar with the tens of thousands of similar cases of deformity at birth since the end of the war, pointed the finger at Agent Orange. And what about the waves of heat that would overwhelm both children, sending them into fits of anger? The doctor, unable to locate the physiological cause, referred to it only as “fire disease,” and again drew a line to the lethal dioxin mixed with other chemicals to form Agent Orange.
In the centre of Bien Hoa lies a small airport. During the war, US forces used it as a base from which to fly sorties over southern Vietnam. Some 70 million liters of Agent Orange were dropped, covering 20 percent of the forest cover. Large tanks inside Bien Hoa airport were used to store the chemicals, but in the late 1960s a major spillage occurred, resulting in surrounding lakes and soil becoming contaminated with dioxin.
A UN-funded study into the lingering effects of the contamination released its findings in early March, 43 years after the end of Operation Ranch Hand, the codename given to the defoliating campaign. It found that current day concentrations of dioxins around the airport to be eight times higher than recommended levels. Yet people still fish in the lakes, suggesting the government has been slow to emphasize the dangers of contact with contaminated water and soil.
Phan Chi Tu’s house sits opposite the perimeter wall circling the airport. He has lived here since the early 1980s, but cannot claim ignorance of the risks posed by his proximity to the site of the spillage. “Many people who settled here were poor so they had to accept the situation,” he says. Before the remaining canisters of dioxin were removed from Bien Hoa in the 1990s, he even broke into the compound and emptied some so he could sell the metal for scrap. His own health is not a concern, he thinks, but he fears for his two sons.
“Until they were five and seven, they were very bright and hard working,” he says. “Now they cannot study. Since they were eight they’ve both suffered headaches every day, and they have no concentration.” Another recent round of brain scans had shown nothing, but Phan Chi Thu thinks his contact with dioxin is the cause of his children’s suffering – he raised fish and crab when he first moved to Bien Hoa, spending hours in the lakes each day. As the results of the study in March show, the chemicals have remained potent, decades on from the spillage.
Doctor Nguyen Thị Phuong Tan works at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, which houses the Hoa Binh Center for disabled orphans. She thinks around four-fifths of the 60 children in her care are victims of Agent Orange. A baby was born last month with deformities common to dioxin, suggesting the affliction may have passed to a fourth generation. “The Agent Orange that affected the parents changed the gene structure of the children,” she says. Although it’s not possible to prove beyond doubt that a condition is a result of Agent Orange, she says the hugely disproportionate level of disabilities among children from areas like Bien Hoa, one of a number of dioxin ‘hotspots’ where extensive spraying or spillage occurred, provides strong enough anecdotal evidence.
It can eventually debilitate the parent too. “In time, [it] is easy to get liver cancer, blood cancer or brain damage, and it affects the neurons – the muscles can atrophy and paralysis can set in,” Nguyen Thị Phuong Tan says. This may continue for generations to come. “If people are eating rice or fish or drinking water in Agent Orange-affected areas, they will be affected by Agent Orange.”
There’s an additional dimension to the Agent Orange legacy in Vietnam. Much of the spraying took place in rural areas, stymying agricultural productivity. This has affected the livelihoods of people living in these contaminated areas, so that not only are their children far more likely to be born with crippling deformities due to the dioxin, but the parents are too poor to carry the burden of a disabled child.
Twice a month on average, Nurse Kim Yen will open the front gate to the Thi Nghe orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City and find a baby outside, abandoned to her care by their mother or father. More than 350 children stay here; the majority were left in baskets outside – no name, no history. Around 40 girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 17 pack the main ward, most of them bedridden.
Spindly, brittle legs poke out from the beds, and the hands of some are bound in padding or tied to the railings to prevent them from injuring themselves. A chorus of pained groans provides a looping background noise. Nurses say the children often develop depression. The stench of urine is strong.
The staff, an assortment of government-appointed personnel and members of a Catholic congregation, work round the clock to give some respite to the suffering of the children. The legs and arms of those with muscular dystrophy are massaged at regular intervals, and the half dozen or so children with hydrocephalus, a disease linked to Agent Orange that causes the skull to swell to some four times its normal size, before eventually killing the person, are fed. The attachment developed between nurses and children, who invariably spend their entire childhood here, is strong: “When they turn 17 [the age they are required to move to an adult care home], I often want to lie about their age so they can stay here,” says Kim Yen.
Volunteers from Vietnam and beyond apply regularly to help at the orphanage. They come and go, but for the children, their chances of integrating into society in later life are slim. Like Cong Ngyuen in Bien Hoa, they may well suffer discrimination and bullying from peers. “Because of the stigma, families refuse to recognize themselves as affected by Agent Orange,” says Doctor Nguyen Thị Phuong Tan.
The chances of an Agent Orange sufferer marrying are greatly diminished by evidence that the affliction can be passed to children; in a society in which parents, especially from poor areas, still depend on their offspring for income and support, few can risk partnering with someone who might bear disabled children.
After years of rebuffing requests for assistance from the Vietnam government, the US in 2012 began a US$43 million pilot scheme to clean up contaminated land. But aside from the seemingly meager funds allocated by Washington to tackle such a vast problem, and the fact that the US still won’t apologise for Operation Ranch Hand, it has come too late. The Vietnam government thinks around 500,000 children have been born with Agent Orange-related disabilities. With current studies showing still toxic levels of dioxin in the land, the likes of Cong Ngyuen, and the more recent babies afflicted by chemicals that refuse to leave the soil, may not be the last generation to shoulder the burden of a campaign that many hoped would be relegated to history.
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