Toxic ghosts from the past

I attended earlier this month a good friend and classmate’s wedding in Vietnam, but as usual, I did not do any research about the place I was going to, preferring to let serendipity take me wherever it pleased. My friend’s hometown, Bien Hoa city, is about a 45-minute car ride from Ho Chi Minh City airport. Her husband’s friends and I arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon, which didn’t leave us with much time before we were bussed off to dinner together.

That evening, when I returned to the hotel, I searched on my phone for highlights in the city that I thought I might visit after the wedding lunch reception the next day. My google search yielded the following:

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Oct 21, 2014 - Around 250000 cu.m of soil in Bien Hoa City, the southern province of Dong Nai, are contaminated with dioxin at levels ranging from 1000 ppt ... › Vietnam › Ho Chi Minh City

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Discover your former air base and old hangouts in Bien Hoa City on a full-day ... Highlights. Travel by vintage Jeep to the old air and army bases of Bien Hoa ...

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Oct 22, 2014 - NDO/VNA - Around 250000 cu.m of soil in Bien Hoa City, in the southern province of Dong Nai, are contaminated with dioxin at levels ranging ...


I was at once intrigued. According to the Aspen Institute, US forces sprayed enormous amounts of the herbicide Agent Orange/dioxin over the rural landscape of Vietnam between 1961 and 1971 to defoliate trees and shrubs and food crops that were providing cover and food for the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. The herbicides were sprayed over about 24 percent of southern Vietnam, destroying 5 million acres of upland and mangrove forests and about 500,000 acres of crops (a total area the size of Massachusetts). Of these areas, 34 percent were sprayed more than once; some of the upland forests were sprayed more than four times. One study found that 3,181 villages were sprayed as well. Areas of Laos and Cambodia near the Vietnam border were also sprayed.

While dioxin results from natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires, it is also a by-product of industry processes, such as smelting and the manufacturing of some herbicides and pesticides. What is particularly worrying about dioxin is that it is highly enduring and highly toxic. According to the World Health Organisation, “once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years. In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher an animal is in the food chain, the higher the concentration of dioxins.”

“Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions. Chronic exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer.”

I went to bed that night pondering what would drive a country to invade another and then release huge amounts of toxins to asphyxiate its environment and to squeeze the life slowly out of its enemies. Because they are communists?

The next morning, whilst I waited at the hotel lobby along with other guests to be taken to the wedding reception, I flipped open a copy of the Vietnam News to see that John Kerry, US secretary of state, was visiting Vietnam. At a meeting the day before, Vietnamese prime minister Pham Binh Minh had urged him to help push forward with projects to decontaminate areas at Da Nang and Bien Hoa airports that were saturated with the dioxin Agent Orange.

As I stood there reading, I was suffused with thoughts that this was a country that was still struggling to cope with the fallout of war, half a century later.

The banquet was a huge, joyous occasion. Both families had invited hundreds of friends and relatives. We were entertained by a dance on stage and a woman emcee who sang a stirring Vietnamese song. Throughout the rest of the meal, a band played songs from the 1950s and 60s, tunes I grew up with and which my father still plays. I did finally manage to catch sights of Ho Chi Minh City later that afternoon with 3 much younger, new found friends, but that would be a story for another day.


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