Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month:Cleaning up Agent Orange — a Vietnam War Legacy

By Vance S. Fong

I was born in Hanoi, and grew up there in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, my father drove ore trucks on a hazardous route around bomb craters, sometimes while bombs were falling on the city. He was not killed by bombs, however. He died of hepatitis years later, from having drunk polluted drinking water. My father fought liver cancer bravely as he waited for my daughter to be born, but his liver gave up. Each time I visit his grave, I am more committed for make the environment safer, here in the U.S. as well as in Vietnam.

EPA’s Office of International Affairs invited me to return to Vietnam 12 years ago. After my EPA work was finished, I sought to learn more about the conditions that caused my father’s death. In Hanoi I met with scientists of the Vietnam Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to study the problem of unsanitary drinking water.

Meanwhile, my attention was drawn to the lingering impacts of Agent Orange, an herbicide which contained extremely toxic dioxins and furans. Between 1961 and 1971, more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides were sprayed on Vietnam’s forests and crops. Four decades later, dioxin remains at dangerous levels around former U.S. airbases that once housed planes carrying herbicides. In some instances local foods have been contaminated.

In 2001, EPA’s Office of Research and Development invited me to participate in a bi-national partnership to cooperate on research and monitoring technologies to find and clean up Agent Orange/dioxin hot spots throughout Vietnam.

I was assigned to collaborate with the Vietnamese government to build capacity for lab analysis of dioxins and related chemicals. The five-year, $2 million project gave Vietnam technologies to assess soil contamination at Agent Orange hot spots at the Da Nang airport. The effort included training, U.S. government donation of equipment, including a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, and assistance with data collection and analysis.

In May 2009, the project reached a major milestone. My EPA colleague Harry Allen, Sr. and I collaborated with Vietnam’s Academy of Science and Technology, and Ministry of Defense, on a bioremediation pilot test at the Da Nang airbase. The goal was to demonstrate a permanent, cost-effective treatment method to protect public health from herbicide hot spots.

EPA’s objective was to demonstrate the best methods for sharply reducing the levels of Agent Orange and dioxins in the soil. This information is being used to develop a full-scale cleanup strategy for dioxin hot spots. The project will also have economic benefits. The Da Nang cleanup is necessary for Vietnam to expand the former airbase into an international airport. The expansion will bring jobs, international visitors, and prosperity to the formerly contaminated area.

About the author: Vance Fong is the regional environmental indicator program manager for EPA Pacific Southwest Region (Region 9). Vance is a first generation Vietnamese American.

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