DA NANG, Vietnam — In the tropical climate of central Vietnam, weeds and shrubs seem to grow everywhere — except here.
Forty years after the United States stopped spraying herbicides in the jungles of Southeast Asia in the hopes of denying cover to Vietcong fighters and North Vietnamese troops, an air base here is one of about two dozen former American sites that remain polluted with an especially toxic strain of dioxin, the chemical contaminant in Agent Orange that has been linked to cancers, birth defects and other diseases.
On Thursday, after years of rebuffing Vietnamese requests for assistance in a cleanup, the United States inaugurated its first major effort to address the environmental effects of the long war.
“This morning we celebrate a milestone in our bilateral relationship,” David B. Shear, the American ambassador to Vietnam, said at a ceremony attended by senior officers of the Vietnamese military. “We’re cleaning up this mess.”
“今晨，我们庆祝双边关系中的一个里程碑事件，”美国驻越南大使戴维·B·希尔(David B. Shear)在有越南军方高级官员出席的仪式上表示，“我们将清理这些糟糕的残留污染。”
The program, which is expected to cost $43 million and take four years, was officially welcomed with smiles and handshakes at the ceremony. But bitterness remains here. Agent Orange is mentioned often in the news media, and victims are commemorated annually on Aug. 10, the day in 1961 when American forces first tested spraying it in Vietnam. The government objected to Olympics sponsorship this year by Dow Chemical, a leading producer of Agent Orange during the war. Many here have not hesitated to call the American program too little — it addresses only the one site — and very late.
“It’s a big step,” said Ngo Quang Xuan, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations. “But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it’s not enough.”
“这是一大步，”越南前驻联合国(UN)大使吴光春(Ngo Quang Xuan)说道，“但在承受着后果的人眼里，这还不够。”
Over a decade of war, the United States sprayed about 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, halting only after scientists commissioned by the Agriculture Department issued a report expressing concerns that dioxin showed “a significant potential to increase birth defects.” By the time the spraying stopped, Agent Orange and other herbicides had destroyed 2 million hectares, or 5.5 million acres, of forest and cropland, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Nguyen Van Rinh, a retired lieutenant general who is now the chairman of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, has vivid memories of hearing American aircraft above the jungles of southern Vietnam and seeing Agent Orange raining down in sheets on him and his troops. Plants and animals exposed to the defoliant were dead within days. Many of his troops later suffered illnesses that he suspects were linked to the repeated exposure to Agent Orange, used in concentrations 20 to 55 times that of normal agricultural use.
退役中将阮万林(Nguyen Van Rinh)现在是越南橙剂/二恶英受害者协会(Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin)主席。他对战时的经历记忆犹新：他在越南南部的丛林听到美国飞机在上空飞行，然后看到橙剂如倾盆大雨般落到他和部下身上。受到落叶剂污染的植物和动物在几天之内就死了。他手下的很多官兵后来受到病痛折磨，他怀疑这些和他们多次接触橙剂有关。当时，美军使用的橙剂浓度是正常农用剂量的20倍至55倍。
“I would like to have one message sent to the American people,” Mr. Rinh said in his office, where a large bust of Ho Chi Minh, the wartime leader and icon, stared down from a shelf behind his desk. “The plight of Agent Orange victims continues. I think the relationship would rise up to new heights if the American government took responsibility and helped their victims and address the consequences.”
Those who have worked on the issue say the American government has been slow to address the issue in part because of concerns about liability. It took years for American soldiers who sprayed the chemicals to secure settlements from the chemical companies that produced them. The United States government, which also lagged in acknowledging the problem, has spent billions of dollars on disability payments and health care for American soldiers who came into contact with Agent Orange.
Mr. Shear, the American ambassador, sidestepped a reporter’s question after the ceremony about whether the United States would take responsibility for the environmental and health effects of Agent Orange.
A class-action case against chemical companies filed in the United States on behalf of millions of Vietnamese was dismissed in 2005 on the grounds that supplying the defoliant did not amount to a war crime and that the Vietnamese plaintiffs had not established a clear causal effect between exposure to Agent Orange and their health problems.
When environmental factors are linked to disease, proof positive is sometimes hard to determine. American military studies have outlined connections between Agent Orange and myriad ailments, while Dow Chemical maintains that the “very substantial body of human evidence on Agent Orange establishes that veterans’ illnesses are not caused by Agent Orange.”
In Vietnam, there are many cases in which links to Agent Orange appear striking.
Nguyen Van Dung, 42, moved to Da Nang in 1996 with his wife and newborn daughter and worked at the former American base, wading through the knee-deep mud of drainage ditches and dredging them with a shovel. During the first 10 years, he, like other employees, harvested fish and eels from the large ponds and canals on the air base grounds, taking them home almost daily. Studies later showed high concentrations of dioxin in the fat tissue and organs of the fish.
42岁的阮文勇(Nguyen Van Dung)1996年和妻子以及刚出生的女儿搬到岘港，之后他在那里的前美军基地工作，艰难地在污泥齐膝深的排污渠里挪动，用一把铲子挖出污泥。头十年里，他和其他员工一样在基地的大池塘和水渠里捕捞鱼类和黄鳝，几乎每天都把它们带回家。后来的研究显示，这些鱼的脂肪组织和器官积聚了高浓度的二恶英。
The couple’s second daughter was born in 2000 with a rare blood disease. She died at 7.
Their son Tu was born in 2008, and he was quickly found to have the same blood condition. With regular transfusions, he has defied his doctor’s prediction that he would not live past 3, but he is nearly blind, with bulging eyes that roll wildly, and he speaks in high-pitched tones that only his parents can understand. His chest cavity is so weak that he cannot breathe if he lies on his stomach.
What caused the birth defects, and who is to blame? Detailed medical tests are out of the question for Tu’s parents, whose combined monthly income is the equivalent of $350, much of which goes to medical care.
But Luu Thi Thu, the boy’s mother, does not hesitate to assign blame.
不过，孩子的母亲刘诗书(Luu Thi Thu)毫不犹豫地指出了她认定的罪魁祸首。
“If there hadn’t been a war and Americans hadn’t sprayed dioxin and chemicals into this area, we wouldn’t be suffering these consequences,” she said.
Le Ke Son, a doctor and the most senior Vietnamese official responsible for the government’s programs related to Agent Orange, said the debates should take a back seat to aid. “We spend a lot of time arguing about the reason why people are disabled,” he said. “One way or another they are victims and suffered from the legacy of the war. We should do something for them.”
黎继山(Le Ke Son)是一名医生，也是越南负责涉及橙剂的政府计划的最高级别官员。他认为辩论应该退居其次，援助才是最首要的。“我们花了很多时间争辩人们残疾的原因。”他说，“无论如何，他们总是受害者，承受着战争后果的折磨。我们应该为他们做点什么。