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The science of chemical warfare has left a deadly legacy in Vietnam

By Bea Duffield - posted Monday, 21 July 2003

"Weapons of mass destruction" or WMD is a term that's become a political football. It's become the 21st century bogeyman with Bush Junior and others using it to justify the invasion of Iraq. It could be used to justify future invasions of "recalcitrant" nations.

The embarrassing thing is that WMD haven't been found in Iraq nor for that matter in Afghanistan, the military's previous favourite destination. But who thinks of Afghanistan now? Who will even remember Iraq next year with Bush now turning his attention to Africa. Ask today's generation about the Vietnam War and you get a blank look. How quickly we forget. And how quickly we forgot that the Vietnam War was fought with WMD, the effect of which is still being felt today.

Colin Powell said Saddam Hussein was the biggest user of WMD since the first world war. He was wrong. Admittedly, Saddam did some pretty nasty things like gassing the Kurds but biggest user of nuclear and chemical WMD since the first world war was in fact, the United States of America.


Powell probably forgot about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also probably forgot that from 1961 to 1974 the United States dropped 72 million litres of chemicals on Vietnam. Most of it was Agent Orange, a code name for the orange band that was used to mark the drums it was stored in. US soldiers dumped an additional 1 million litres of herbicides just to empty their tanks. In total, over 10 per cent of the land area of south Vietnam was sprayed with chemicals eliminating 50 per cent of the mangrove forests and seriously affecting the wildlife population.

A herbicide specifically developed by scientists in the 1940s for the military, the sole purpose of Agent Orange was to deny an enemy cover and concealment in dense tropical terrain by defoliating trees and shrubbery.

Agent Orange contained a super-toxic strain of dioxin called TCCD. TCDD is not found in nature. It is a man-made by-product contaminant of the chemical manufacturing process used to make Agent Orange.

A small 80 gram tin of TCCD could destroy New York City. The United States dropped 170 kilograms of it during the Vietnamese War. Dioxin doesn't disperse. High concentrations of the substance applied during the war persist in Vietnam today, and have irreversibly altered complex ecosystems. It has rooted itself in Vietnamese soil from where it has spread through water into the food chain and from there into human blood, breast milk and foetuses.

Today, the poison has seeped through three generations of Vietnamese. The grandchildren of those who first saw the sweet-smelling yellow powder fall from the sky nearly over 40 years ago are experiencing the effect of it today.

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy's recent article in The Guardian exposed the horror of the Vietnam War's legacy. They found behind a locked door at Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, hundreds of glass containers in which mutated and misshapen human foetuses float in formaldehyde. Some appear to be sleeping, fingers curling their hair, thumbs pressing at their lips, while others with multiple heads and mangled limbs are listless and slumped. None of these dioxin babies ever woke up.


On the floor below Scott-Clark and Levy further found those who survived the misery of their births. There are ravaged infants whom no one has the ability to understand, babies so traumatised by their own disabilities, luckless children so enraged and depressed at their miserable fate that they are tied to their beds just to keep them safe from harm. They describe one victim who is 19. She looks 10. She walks like a spider and her skin is septic wet red rubble. Her sister's fingers and toes drop off and she loses more skin each day as her mother watches. Polio, Down syndrome and profound retardation are everywhere. Some children look scarcely human. The Guardian further reports that some women give birth to genderless living lumps that contained organs. This is Vietnam today.

The Vietnam Red Cross and other organisations are doing what they can. According to the World Health Organisation there are only two ways to clean up Vietnam - bake all the soil in Vietnam to 1000 degrees Celsius or pave the country with concrete and chemically treat what lies beneath. There are 80 million Vietnamese living on that soil. The fact is nothing can be done.

Scientists have the capacity to develop WMD and will continue to provide politicians with access to these lethal weapons. But politicians rarely think long term nor of the legacy that chemical warfare science has left Vietnam - glass jars in a silent, white-tiled room at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.

So the question for us today is not whether we support our leaders' stance on Iraq or Afghanistan but whether we are prepared to accept the long-term aftermaths of war.

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About the Author

Dr Bea Duffield is General Manager of the Office of the Chief Scientist, Queensland Department of Primary Industries, which is a member of National Forum.

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