Fifty years ago, the air base in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, was the world’s busiest airport. The base is now surrounded by four neighborhoods with about 111,000 total residents.
As reported recently by PBS News Hour, there are about twelve hundred residents on the Bien Hoa base which is home to part of the Vietnam Air Force and its long-range fighter-bombers. A drainage canal runs along part of the runway and through one of the neighborhoods named Buu Long.
This area is just one of many areas that are contaminated with dioxin, a byproduct of Agent Orange. Barrels holding fifty-five gallons of the toxin were loaded onto C-123s at the airbase and sprayed over wide areas in Vietnam during the war.
Agent Orange was used by the U.S. to kill mangroves along the Mekong Delta and thin the dense forests that hid the enemy and its supply lines.
By 1971, South Vietnam had been sprayed with twenty million gallons of the toxin over one-sixth of the country. This meant that approximately 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to dioxin.
In addition to the deliberate raids, the chemicals were often mishandled and spilled. Few precautions were taken in disposal of the toxins. Bulk storage tanks leaked thousands of gallons of toxins into the soil.
The U.S. and Vietnam have jointly announced an effort to clean up the area surrounding Bien Hoa. They are calling it one of the largest remediation efforts “in the world”, at a cost of a minimum of $683 million. They estimate they are dealing with contaminated soils that could fill two hundred Olympic-size pools.
About Dioxin and Agent Orange
Dioxin consists of over four hundred chemical compounds, the most potent being 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-P-dioxin, or TCDD.
Agent Orange was originally created with two toxic chemicals. As the war escalated, the Pentagon demanded more potent chemicals.
The acceleration of the production process raised the mix to higher temperatures, thus creating dioxin. Soil samples show that the level of toxins was 1,300 higher than standards in the U.S.
Dioxin has been seeping into the soils for fifty years and of course, that includes Buu Long and other such neighborhoods. It is in the food chain. It is in fish, domestic animals, and in breast milk. It has now affected the third generation born since the war.
Dioxin’s Deadly Journey
Dioxin moves along a steady course starting after it sinks to the bottom of a body of water. It becomes attached to organic substances then advances along plankton, aquatic animals then to fish.
When it gets to the soil, it integrates with chickens, ducks and is found in range-free eggs, staples of the Vietnamese diet. It is constantly building in concentration as it moves up the food chain (bioaccumulation).
As much as 87 percent of dioxin is ingested. Once inside the body, it is found to enter the liver, fatty tissues, and breast milk. The WHO (World Health Organization) sets the tolerable maximum total intake of dioxin as one trillionth of a gram per kilogram body weight daily. Scientists discovered that the amount in breastfed babies in Buu Long is 80.
Children can be found in orphanages living with the effects of dioxin. Their deformities show in their faces, limbs, and swollen heads which are a sign of fluid in the brain. Dioxin, responsible for nine types of cancer, causes changes in gene expression that runs from generation to generation.
The U.S. Commits to $700 Million
The Ford Foundation funded studies that used findings by scientists in Canada and Vietnam which identified a link between dioxin and food contamination in outlying areas.
The scientists took surveys of all former military facilities owned by the United States that were based in South Vietnam. They found that most were safe now, but they did find three “hot spots” including Bien Hoa which posed the most serious health threat.
The first area was cleaned up without assistance from the United States. The second cleanup required six years to complete at a total of $110 million from USAID.
It is estimated that the third project, Bien Hoa, will take at least ten years to complete for an estimated $683 million. In this case, USAID was not in a position to manage the entire cost so the U.S. Defense Department committed to pay half the cost.