Vietnam war: 44 years on, birth defects from America’s Agent Orange are increasing
- Infants are still being born with birth defects linked to a toxic herbicide used by the US military to weed out Viet Cong fighters
- Environmentalists say the country could see six to 12 more generations of victims, but US courts are so far not satisfied with evidence indicating a link
The noise sets off the Mai family’s pet dog, who sprints to the front of the cement-walled house, barking heartily.
In the living room, brothers Mai Cong Truyen, 11, Mai Cong Khoa, eight, and Mai Cong Tun, four, remain motionless, though they seem momentarily confused by the sudden buzz.
Although the war ended in 1975, there have been numerous cases of children born in Quang Tri with disabilities and deformities said to be linked to Agent Orange. Worryingly, they include infants born to healthy parents.
“We were confused because we do not have a family history of Agent Orange, and our parents were not veterans,” said the boys’ mother, Nguyen Thi Quynh, 33.
She and her husband, Mai Cong Tun, 35, eke out a living as scrap metal collectors, searching forested areas for fragments of unexploded military ammunition left over from the war.
Of their four children, only one was born healthy – their daughter Mai Kim Chi, seven.
Quang Tri province, in central Vietnam along what used to be the border between North and South Vietnam, was where some of the fiercest struggles of the war were fought.
Millions of Vietnamese are living with the effects of Agent Orange and more are being born with defects linked to the herbicide. Many living in poor villages do not receive the health care and rehabilitation they need, simply because they cannot afford to seek treatment.
Nguyen Thi Thuy, 58, has cared for her severely disabled son, Tran Thi Hong, since the day he was born paralysed 26 years ago.
As he writhes in pain, his body shaking violently, she massages him to soothe his convulsions. He has not lived a day free of seizures and bouts of hysteria.
Thuy’s four other children are all affected by Agent Orange too, though not as severely as Hong, but the family cannot afford to travel to seek treatment.
“I just don’t have enough money,” said Thuy. The family of seven survive on a monthly allowance of 1 million Vietnam dong (US$43) from the government.
MENACE FROM THE SKY
According to official accounts, the US military sprayed about 75 million litres of Agent Orange directly over rural areas of what was then South Vietnam.
The decade-long programme, called Operation Ranch Hand, began in 1961 and was meant to destroy food crops and defoliate thick jungle vegetation to deprive opposing Viet Cong fighters of food and cover.
The use of the toxic herbicide was controversial from the start, drawing protests throughout the 1960s from top scientists concerned about its impact on people and the environment.
It was believed to cause birth defects related to the spine and brain, as well as more than 15 types of cancer.
Today, more than 3 million Vietnamese, spanning four generations, suffer from health conditions linked to Agent Orange, says the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), which has been fighting for compensation.
In Quang Tri province alone, 15,000 villagers in the population of 600,000 suffer from Agent Orange-related conditions.
From 2007 to 2018, the US Congress provided US$255 million in aid to areas affected by the herbicide, but most of the funds went towards the environmental clean-up of Da Nang Air Base, where the herbicide supplies were stored during the war.
The elderly and disabled receive about US$2.24 a month on average, while children affected by Agent Orange get up to US$3.60.
Vietnam’s labour ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
CONTAMINATED FOOD RISK
More than 40 years after the war ended, Quang Tri officials are worried by a rising number of infants with birth defects linked to Agent Orange.
A spokesman for the provincial government, the People’s Committee of Quang Tri, declined to provide figures, but said there were “a lot more” new cases last year than in 2017.
Buddhist nun Thich Nu Lien Thien, who provides free physiotherapy to children with disabilities, saw the number of new cases at her temple double to about 100 last year from 2017.
Among them were children born to healthy parents with no history of Agent Orange problems.
One explanation is the villagers’ prolonged exposure to the poison, says Dr Linda Birnbaum, director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina.
“Today, what affects villagers is contaminated food supply, both in vegetables and animals,” she said.
The chemical contaminant, or dioxin, in Agent Orange is not only long-lasting but can also cling to surfaces and remain in the ground or in sediment particles in water sources.
It can then poison fish, animals or crops. And when people eat contaminated food, they can be affected too.
Daniel Moats, a senior partner at the consultancy, said that even inhaling contaminated dust and skin contact could affect people.
Hatfield has predicted that Vietnam might see another six to 12 more generations of Agent Orange victims.
Birnbaum says: “Better research into how people in affected areas are still exposed to Agent Orange could help us better understand the situation and mitigate the risks involved.”
NO SUCCESS YET IN COURT
Although all signs point to Agent Orange as the source of poisoning in Quang Tri and other parts of Vietnam, US courts have not been satisfied by evidence showing the link.
VAVA filed three lawsuits in the US – in 2004, 2007 and 2009 – seeking compensation from 37 chemical companies that manufactured Agent Orange.
It lost all three cases. The courts ruled there was insufficient scientific evidence to link Agent Orange to the debilitating condition of many Vietnamese.
Then, last August, a US court ordered chemical giant Monsanto to pay compensation of US$78 million to a school maintenance worker in San Francisco who blamed his terminal lymphoma on Monsanto’s weedkiller, Roundup.
It renewed hope that the Vietnamese could try again.
Nguyen Phuong Tra, a spokesman for Vietnam’s foreign ministry, said after the court ruling: “The verdict serves as a legal precedent which refutes previous claims that the herbicides made by Monsanto and other chemical corporations in the US and provided for the US army in the war were harmless.”
However, responding to queries, Charla Lord, a media representative from Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer, said Monsanto did not see any basis for the claims made by Vietnam’s foreign ministry.
“After decades of study, there is no competent scientific evidence or medical proof that Agent Orange caused the wide array of alleged serious injuries,” she said.
It remains to be seen if the Vietnamese will seek compensation yet again.
MAKING QUANG TRI SAFE AGAIN
Biohazards are not the only menace in Quang Tri.
More than 400,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) may still be buried across the province despite decades of efforts to remove them, says Washington-based non-profit group PeaceTrees Vietnam, which is dedicated to mine clearance, education and community projects.
An estimated 7.6 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Vietnam by the US military, 40 per cent of which landed on Quang Tri alone. Wartime remnants can be found in the compounds of homes and schools, and in forested areas near villages.
So far, 8,540 people have died in Quang Tri from stepping on unexploded bombs and landmines, says the Quang Tri Mine Action Centre, a provincial body providing help to victims.
Nearly a third of the victims in Quang Tri were children below 15 years old.
Last year alone, it destroyed 13,953 unexploded bombs and cleared 2,400 hectares (5,930 acres).
Project Renew, established in 2001 and funded by international organisations, has destroyed more than 76,000 items of UXO.
Bomb survivor Ho Ven Lai, 28, supports educating children about the risks. A bomb mishap when he was 10 years old cost him his right arm and leg, as well as the vision in his right eye.
He was playing with two cousins when they found a cluster of bombs buried in sand and picked them up. One of the bombs exploded, killing his cousins instantly.
“We did not know how dangerous the bombs were,” Lai says.
Although he survived, he was robbed of living a normal life. “My dreams were dashed after that,” he says. “Disability is looked down on in Vietnam. It’s hard to find jobs and be accepted in public.”
In 2017 and 2018, Project Renew ran mine-risk education sessions for 38,000 children and adults in Quang Tri and this has helped to slash UXO-related accidents, says its communications and development manager Hien Xuan Ngo.
Schoolboy Le Quang Bao Minh, 15, who attended a training session, said he now knows what to do if he encounters a wartime relic that could be a bomb.
“Never run, walk away slowly if you see a bomb,” he says. And never pick up an unusual-looking object.
In 2017 there were three minor injuries and, for the first time since the war, no deaths.
“In 2018, we recorded zero deaths and injuries,” Ngo says. “It’s great news for us, Quang Tri has come a really long way.”
Veteran Dao Van Vinh, who served in the military from 1951 to 1989, says although education and clean-up efforts have helped, it may take many more decades for Quang Tri to be hazard-free.
“I don’t know when Quang Tri will move on from the war, but I wish the families here will get to lead normal lives one day,” he says. “They don’t have to be wealthy, just able to lead a safe and normal life.” ■