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United States and Laos yet to deal with Agent Orange legacy

ABC Radio Australia - August 28, 2012

Nearly four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, work has finally begun on cleaning up the first of the hotspots in Vietnam that were contaminated by Agent Orange.

The carcinogenic herbicide was used by the US military during the Vietnam War to clear the Vietcong's jungle hideouts and disrupt food supplies.

And the after-effects have been far reaching, with the health of veterans on both sides, and that of generations of Vietnamese people being severely damaged. But what of neighbouring Laos and the impact of Agent Orange there?

The most extreme claim suggests there could be as many as 350 hotspots, but from Connect Asia's investigations, it appears to be a subject that no-one really wants to talk about.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Michael Boddington, advisor on disability and rehabilitation at Laos' Prime Minister's Office

Ewart: Now at the time that you tried to get this working party off the ground in 2007, you were technical advisor on victim assistance at the National Regulatory Authority. Who was in the group and what exactly were you trying to do?

Boddington: Well it consisted of two or three people from the National Regulatory Authority plus a number of NGO workers, a working group probably of about eight or ten people in total. And what I was trying to do was just find out what the extent of Agent Orange impact was on Laos and see whether any steps needed to be taken to handle that.

Ewart: So what happened to the working group? What progress did you make?

Boddington: We had two meetings and there was a lot of enthusiasm in the group. But then it was cancelled by the then director of the NRA, it was stopped and for a very good reason, I mean which I could understand, and the reason was that it was not part of the NRA's mandate. And that's true, it wasn't. I mean when we looked again at the schedule of what work the NRA had to do, Agent Orange was not mentioned and nothing like it. We couldn't sort of say well it would come under paragraph 16B or whatever, there was nothing like it. I do understand that it's not a subject that is welcomed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Laos, possibly under pressure from outside sources.

Ewart: But essentially what we have is 37 years after the Vietnam War ended, people of Laos still don't really know whether they have a problem or not in terms of Agent Orange, where the hotspots are, how bad the contamination is and obviously whether any of the health ill effects that people may have been suffering can be tied into Agent Orange?

Boddington: Know nothing about it at all Richard, no, nothing, nothing. That's right. There have been studies, when I say studies effectively desk studies. A man called Andrew Wells-Dang from Vietnam, well he's American but he lives in Vietnam, he made a desk study in 2002. In 2006-ish an organisation called Hatfield Consultants from Canada who'd done a lot of work on Agent Orange, particularly in Vietnam, did rather more than a desk study. But one of the things you have to understand is that when you're testing for dioxins, each sample that you test costs a huge amount of money, I mean like a thousand dollars. So you don't get out into the field and take 552 samples and bring them back to the lab because you need really big budgets just to do that.

Ewart: Now of course there is the Canadian company which has been instrumental in carrying out Agent Orange surveys in Vietnam. They have a presence in Laos now, they have an office in Vientiane and my understanding is that there is some survey work going on. But not funded by the US government, curiously much of it funded by NASA, apparently they're interested in what may come out of this form of survey work and how they could use it subsequently. So it would seem there's a limit to what can be achieved even through these current surveys?

Boddington: I think that's absolutely right. Yes Hatfield, the Canadian company, has re-established here in Vientiane, and this is one of the things they're looking at. But we won't know the outcome of whatever work it is that they're doing until either the end of this year or the beginning of next. They're working in collaboration with others. But when they do report it'll give us a much better insight into the circumstances here in Laos, yes. I mean what we know, the US has released quantities of information at different times on the different aspects of the assault on the Lao countryside, both from bombing and from other causes such as the use of chemical herbicides. And we've had bits and pieces of such information, and at the NRA in the early days we produced maps showing where Agent Orange had been sprayed. It was not used to anything like the extent in Laos than it was in Vietnam. I mean a fraction of what happened in Vietnam. But nonetheless it was used over quite extensive areas, I mean we're talking hundreds of thousands of acres, mainly of jungle. Now the thing that you have to understand when we talk about Agent Orange and these chemicals, these herbicides, is that they were used consistently in agriculture throughout the developed world. I mean when I was a boy growing up on a farm we used these substances, we used them, we sprayed against weeds in wheat crops and barley crops and so on, and they were very effective at suppressing weeds. And I used to get on a tractor with a tanker behind and sprayer and go out and spray and it smelled just like a very common disinfectant in those days, which was called TCP, and that's because it was the next door neighbour to TCP. It was the identical product to all intents and purposes. We used that on scratches and abrasions, TCP. Nobody knew that these were things called dioxin in those days. So vast areas of Europe and North America and so on were sprayed on an annual basis with 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T and so on.

Ewart: But isn't the point though that obviously that happened, but they weren't spraying this stuff in anything like the strengths that were used during the Vietnam War? I mean I think it's acknowledged by the US military that in some cases they were spraying quantities of Agent Orange which were tens of times stronger than the recommended dose for killing weeds, which of course was what the stuff was invented for?

Boddington: Yes, no, that's absolutely right that it was used in the stronger dose. But it's not those areas that were sprayed. The thing about these products is that they are persistent and they stay in the environment, they don't break down or they only break down very, very slowly, that is the problem. So they're like a cumulative poison. But in the agricultural use they never really accumulated enough to become a problem, and to a large extent that's true also of when they were sprayed in Vietnam and Laos. And the areas, which you mentioned earlier, which are the problem areas, and are what are called hotspots.

Ewart: And this is the information essentially plainly Laos either doesn't have or chooses not to tell anybody about? And we're talking I think I'm right about areas for example where drums of this stuff may have been split or spilled or drums on planes that may have crashed, which would intensify the amount of Agent Orange going into the ground?

Boddington: Yes I mean it wasn't necessarily drums on planes. I don't know that an awful lot of it was transported by plane. But it was of course once it was mixed up. And if you had an aircraft take off, it was fully loaded with ready to spray and that crashed with a load on board, then you've got a hotspot. And we do know I think of three such cases at least that happened here in Laos. But you had the drums stored in places and they might have leaked, they might have broken and leaked and that definitely happened. There might have been an ambush when they were being transported by road and the drums were breached and allowed the fluids to come out, all those sorts of things. I know that in Vietnam the number of hotspots has been reduced by careful observation by people like Hatfield from literally in the thousands that were originally reported to just 30. So when you say in your introduction that there was a suggestion that there might be 350 hotspots in Laos, well that's a possibility, but it's one which I rather doubt.

Ewart: Well I think the gentleman who quoted that in some of the documentation that both you and I have seen, I mean he admits that that seems a little bit far-fetched, but nevertheless that figure has been mentioned. But if it does come down to a smaller number, then I mean surely for the people of Laos that's what they want to hear isn't it? That'll be reassuring for them?

Boddington: We absolutely must deal with it, you're absolutely right Richard. Yes I mean for goodness sake this stuff's poison and it's one of the most harmful poisons known to man. It builds up in the body, it accumulates in the fat tissue, it affects vital organs, liver and so on, and it is a huge source of cancer.

Ewart: So when you hear the US Ambassador as it were give a ten second answer to the question from my colleague and basically say well no, this has never been discussed, and sounding as though she didn't particularly want to talk about it then either, it's not very encouraging that the US won't get involved and take responsibility for what may or may not have happened?

Boddington: It's not at all encouraging, no. Everybody has been hugely encouraged by the fact that all of a sudden 40-whatever million dollars has been released to tackle the issue at Da Nang airport. Everybody's saying at last, a step in the right direction, that somebody is doing something about it, and America who must obviously take responsibility of doing something about it, America has been I'm very sorry to say, very hesitant about stepping up to the plate to deal with any of the legacies that it's left behind, like the unexploded ordinance in Laos. I mean it boasts about the amount of money that it's releasing these days, which is now around the ten-million dollars a year for dealing with UXO, and that amounts to approximately a half of what they spent per day during the war on putting the stuff there.

Ewart: So in light of your experience trying to get the working group off the ground in 2007 and then having to stop that for the reasons you explained earlier, I mean what additional pressure can people like yourself and the other interested parties bring to bear in Laos, and in particular on the US?

Boddington: It's very difficult for anybody to bring pressure to bear in Laos, which you probably know. I mean Laos is the most pressure resistant country in the world as far as the government is concerned. If people raise their heads and start to promote issues of this nature, well unless the government goes along with it and is in harmony with it, well it dies and it's very difficult to pursue issues that the government isn't interested in getting involved in, at that sort of level, at the policy level you can't do it. You could talk about it but even that might not be a good idea.

Ewart: So to that extent it would appear that the initiative has to come from the United States. If they get on board as they have done in Vietnam, then that would presumably open up the situation in Laos to some degree?

Boddington: That would certainly be the best solution, it would indeed, it would be great if the USA were to actually take the initiative and say look, yes we accept that we have responsibility for this, we don't know the circumstances at the moment, we'd like to understand this at least and then decide what action to take. And the work that Hatfield is doing at the moment will hopefully be an important step in that direction, and that would give us that sort of basis at the end of this year. I mean one of the things that does happen I'd say, say about Laos not being open to pressure, it is of course becoming more and more involved in the international community, and in particular through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, and that has been responsible for some very significant changes in policy within Laos because of very quiet pressure that is brought by comparison between states in ASEAN. I mean what's happening in Burma can be attributed to some degree to their membership of ASEAN. Now in Laos this autumn we have the joint meeting of the ASEAN states with the European Union, the ASEM meetings that are happening here. And this as well is going to be a huge spotlight on Laos which will put all sorts of things under the microscope, and mean that there will be these sort of pressures put on Laos that it's got to move forward in a certain way.

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