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Japanese tech could rid Vietnam of war's toxic legacy

A warning sign has been erected at the former U.S. air base in Bien Hoa, Dong Nai Province.

HANOI -- Expectations are growing that Japanese technology will help erase one of the darkest legacies of the Vietnam War -- the lingering presence of Agent Orange.

     Although 40 years have passed since the end of the war, areas of Vietnam remain highly contaminated with the chemical defoliant used by the U.S. military in its herbicidal warfare program.

     Japanese construction company Shimizu brought contaminated soil from Vietnam to Japan in late October to begin experiments in purifying it. The Vietnamese government is paying close attention to the outcome, as Shimizu's technology proved effective in purifying soil polluted from the nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March 2011.

Lingering danger

During the war, the U.S. military had an airfield in Bien Hoa in the southern Vietnamese province of Dong Nai, located about an hour's drive from Ho Chi Minh City. The airfield, which is currently used by the Vietnamese Air Force, is "the most dioxin-contaminated place in the world," according to Vietnamese daily Bao Thanh Nien.

     U.S. military planes that sprayed chemical defoliants containing dioxins and other toxic substances were washed at the airfield after returning from their missions. The location has remained highly contaminated, possibly because the water used to wash the planes penetrated deep into the soil, carrying contaminants with it.

     Areas around the former U.S. air bases in Da Nang and Phu Cat, in the central and southern parts of Vietnam, respectively, are highly contaminated for similar reasons. Along with Bien Hoa, they are known as the "three hot spots."

People continue to move into the area around Bien Hoa air base, where levels of dioxin contamination remain high. The former U.S. base is located beyond the wall at the end of the street.

     There is a paved sidewalk around Bien Hung Lake near the Bien Hoa airfield and duck-shaped boats are available for rental. But local people rarely venture close to the water, fearing an accumulation of dioxin on the lake bed.

     "People who know nothing (about the lake) come here to fish from time to time," said Mai Quoc An, who lives 200 meters from the lake. "There should be a sign that says 'Danger,'" he added.

     Instead, there is only a small "No fishing" sign by the shore.

     Until 10 or so years ago, locals freely entered the airfield because there was no wall around it, according to An.

     With industrial parks being built in Bien Hoa, new homes are rapidly springing up around the airfield to accommodate people moving into the city from other locations.

     Local authorities -- likely concerned that warning against soil contamination without having a viable purification method would only alarm new residents -- eventually erected the wall that now stands around the base.

Promising but pricy

The Vietnamese government first took note of Shimizu's technology in the winter of 2014. It had been used for soil remediation in and around the Fukushima plant and in the polluted site for a new fish and greengrocery wholesale market to be built by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Top Vietnamese military officers have also praised the technology.

Only a small "No fishing" sign stands by Bien Hung Lake in Bien Hoa, Dong Nai Province, though it is said to be highly contaminated.

     Shimizu's experiments with the soil from the Bien Hoa airfield are seen as an important test for the full-scale introduction of the technology in Vietnam.

     Vietnam began talks with the U.S. on cleaning up chemical defoliants in 2000 and in August 2012 launched a joint project to purify soil in Da Nang with the U.S. Agency for International Development. With the necessary $41 million raised mainly by the Vietnamese government, the project envisions purifying some 80,000 cu. meters of polluted soil by 2016 by excavating it and heating it to a temperature of 335 C.

     Shimizu's technology, meanwhile, passes contaminated soil through a sieve to separate reusable dirt from that which needs to be decontaminated. The "dirty" soil is heated to more than 1,000 C, removing contaminants effectively, according to Shimizu officials.

     A Vietnamese government agency will discuss Shimizu's technology at a symposium on the removal of dioxins to be held in Hanoi on Nov. 24.

     Cost may prove an obstacle, however. Decontaminating Bien Hoa alone is estimated to cost $250 million.

Millions of victims

Frustrated by the guerilla tactics of North Vietnamese forces operating from jungles during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed 44 million liters of chemical defoliants, dubbed Agent Orange, from aircraft between 1961 and 1971. At least 4.8 million Vietnamese people were directly affected by the toxins, and many of them died. The suffering continues, with millions of children having been born with birth defects.

The former U.S. air base in Bien Hoa, Dong Nai Province, has been called "the most dioxin-contaminated place in the world," but as little as 10 or so years ago, there was not even a wall around it.

     In Dong Nai, there are 9,114 people afflicted with a total of 17 different health effects, including limb deformities, cerebral disorders and pediatric cancer, according to a local dioxin victims association.

     The government has repeatedly tried, and failed, to purify the soil, said Dao Nguyen, the head of the association. "We have to find new sponsors who offer new technology and financing."

     The government provides each dioxin victim with 1.8 million dong ($80.34) a month, Nguyen said. But many sufferers are ineligible for this support and instead receive only 200,000 dong in physical disability assistance.

     The designation of sufferers as dioxin victims is not based on their physical condition but on whether their parents fought in the war, she said.

     Offspring of those who fought in the war also tend to be given preferential treatment in school entrance examinations and employment, a practice most people in Vietnam take for granted.

     Along with cleaning up the soil, Vietnam must also provide more equitable support for those affected by the contamination.

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