Addressing the Lethal Legacy of Bombs and Agent Orange in Vietnam

In our latest story, “The Lethal Legacy of the Vietnam War,” FERN Editor-at-Large George Black draws on his three decades of environmental and international reporting to reveal a harrowing portrait of rural villages in Quang Tri province—one of the most heavily bombed places on earth and one that still struggles 40 years after the end of the war with the effects of Agent Orange. The cover story is online today with our media partner, The Nation, and marks the 50th Anniversary of the First U.S. Combat Troops Arriving in Vietnam on March 8, 1965.

Black tracks the extraordinary efforts of American vet Chuck Searcy and Project RENEW to rid the province of buried weapons and deal with the aftermath of toxins. With chilling prose, he describes the ever-present danger of unexploded ordnance lying in Vietnam’s farm fields and reveals groundbreaking research on the medical fallout of Agent Orange, to which nearly 5 million Vietnamese were exposed.

“They were walking into a death trap,” writes Black of Quang Tri farmers who returned to their rural homes after the war. “Ten percent of the munitions that rained down on the province failed to detonate, so there was the constant risk of stepping on a piece of unexploded ordnance (UXO), and many thousands did. They also had no idea of how dioxin, the lethal contaminant in Agent Orange, might blight their lives down through three generations.”

While the U.S. government has been willing to provide funding to remove UXO, it has always rejected any causal connection between exposure to Agent Orange and the disabilities that afflict millions of Vietnamese, dismissing Vietnam’s claims as propaganda designed to extort war reparations.

The real scandal, Black was told by Jeanne Stellman, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is that no serious epidemiological study of the toxins has ever been conducted in Vietnam–even though Agent Orange was often used at concentrations up to 10 times higher than prescribed, and was contaminated with dioxin, considered one of the most toxic substances known to humankind.

While many of the rampant birth defects in Vietnam may indeed be the result of Agent Orange, they may also be a consequence of the multitude of other horrors the Vietnamese endured during the war, from carpet bombing to acute food shortages and malnutrition to being burned out of their homes and forcibly displaced.

Stellman, the country’s leading authority on Operation Ranch Hand, the herbicide-spraying program in Vietnam, “has crunched vast quantities of data, including details of more than 9,000 flights, to calculate the precise ‘exposure risk’ of those who were in or near the spraypath on particular days.” Granted access to Stellman’s database, which is not yet public, and interviewing families who were present at the time, Black was able to reconstruct with unprecedented accuracy the relationship between specific Ranch Hand flights and villages where large numbers of families have as many as four or five children with birth defects.

Efforts like Stellman’s and Searcy’s have led to small victories for Vietnamese victims. Fifty years after the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam on March 8, 1965, the Obama Administration has committed significant funds to cleaning up “dioxin hotspots” at the main airfields used during Operation Ranch Hand. And thanks largely to the persistence of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, USAID is now set to distribute new humanitarian support for people with serious birth defects and disabilities—tacitly understood to include those that may have been caused by Agent Orange. This, Chuck Searcy says, is a long-overdue acknowledgment of responsibility and “a real opportunity to close the book” on the darkest legacy of the Vietnam War.

FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz strongly backed this story, because it uncovers a moral responsibility to a largely rural population. “The story is about the ferocious consequences of war, suffered by innocent civilian farmers in the form of unexploded bombs and toxic herbicide exposures, and the failure of our government to fully address this for nearly five decades,” he said.

You can read the full story here at The Nation and here on our website.