DONG NAI PROVINCE, Vietnam—Part 3 of a Tribune investigation finds that the role of defoliants in Vietnam's high rate of birth defects remains a contentious question decades after U.S. spraying missions ended. Complete coverage >>
The sun beats down on Dao Thi Kieu's straw hat as she hunches over thin strands of bright green rice plants, pulling them from beds submerged in muddy water and replanting them elsewhere.
These are the same paddies Kieu tended as a teenager during the Vietnam War, and she still remembers the planes that came in the mornings to spray Agent Orange and other defoliants while she worked.
"I was about 16 when I saw the planes flying overhead, and I saw the spraying until I was married," said Kieu, 58. "It smelled like ripe guava. No trees could survive. It made my clothes wet."
Her vivid memories are supported by data from spraying missions analyzed by the Tribune, which show at least seven sorties that dispensed nearly 13,000 gallons of defoliants passed over Kieu's fields.
Since then, the story of Kieu's life can be told with simple, heartbreaking math. She had eight children. Seven of them were born with severe deformities. Of those, five died before age 8. She also lost her husband, who served in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army, to cancers associated with herbicide exposure.
Decades after the Vietnam War ended, the most contentious question surrounding the use of defoliants by the U.S. military is the impact on the health of untold numbers of Vietnamese.
At the heart of the controversy is the suspected link between the herbicides and birth defects in Vietnam, where more than 5 out of every 100 children are born with some form of physical or mental abnormality, a fourfold increase since the start of the war, according to Vietnamese scientists.
The U.S. government spent $13.7 billion last year on disability payments for more than 1 million Vietnam veterans, many of whom were exposed to herbicides. Millions more have been spent compensating veterans' families whose children were born with birth defects. But U.S. officials bristle at acknowledging connections between the defoliants and illnesses in Vietnam.
Since the countries normalized relations in 1995, Congress has allocated at least $125 million to fight HIV/AIDS in Vietnam, whose infection rate ranks 67th worldwide. About $46 million has been provided to help Vietnamese who lost limbs from unexploded bombs dropped by the United States.
Yet, since the war ended 35 years ago, Congress has set aside just $6 million to assist Vietnam with herbicide-related issues, despite evidence that large numbers of civilians in the south -- people in whose name the war was fought -- were exposed to defoliants that have since been outlawed in the U.S.
Private philanthropies -- including the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies -- have provided nearly three times more money than the U.S. to help the Vietnamese overcome health and environmental damage brought on by the herbicides.
During the war, U.S. officials assured the Republic of Vietnam that the defoliants were harmless. The South Vietnamese government, in turn, sought to convince its citizens that the chemicals were safe. Vietnamese soldiers went so far as to douse themselves in the chemicals and even drink them with water, according to documents from the National Archives.
"Civil servants and cadres explain to the people there the harmlessness of the defoliation by spraying defoliant on the body and water and drinking it before the people," said an October 1963 report from the South Vietnamese government.
Like U.S. soldiers, Vietnamese citizens used empty herbicide barrels for showers and barbecues. Believing the chemicals were harmless, South Vietnamese soldiers often sold empty barrels containing as much as five gallons of herbicide residue to civilians in such places as Da Nang and Bien Hoa, government records state.
But many of the compounds weren't safe. They were contaminated with the most toxic man-made chemical known, the dioxin TCDD. The contaminant was an unintended byproduct of the manufacturing process used by U.S. chemical companies to produce an ingredient found in Agents Orange, Purple, Green and Pink -- compounds that made up more than 65 percent of the nearly 20 million gallons of herbicides released in Vietnam.
Scientists have tied dioxin to more than a dozen illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson's disease and crippling congenital disorders.
"I never met a hormone system that dioxin didn't like to disrupt," said Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a leading dioxin expert. "It has widespread effects in nearly every vertebrate species at nearly every stage of development."