Environmental impacts on Vietnam / Laos | Health | LAO Agent Orange Study
From USAF official spray records disclosed in 1999, fifteen current districts in the provinces of Kham Mouane, Savannakhet, Salavan, Xekong, and Attapeu were heavily and repeatedly sprayed with the herbicides. All fourteen districts are among the most impoverished in the Lao PDR as of 2015.
What is not known is how much aerial spraying or military base clearing, if any, was done under the auspices of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). One Air America veteran reported that he fitted a Pilatus Porter (number XW – PCB) with spray tanks and the plane was used for two months to spray herbicides along Skyline Ridge near Long Tieng in 1968. In addition, the area south of Na Khang in Saynabouly was sprayed. Other anecdotal evidence from villagers around former CIA landing zones and trail watching sites suggests that there was some hand spraying of herbicides done as well in some areas of Lao.
An estimated 300,000 Lao citizens in about 178 villages were exposed to wartime herbicide sprayings. These villages, located in the districts of Xepone, Nong, Vilabouly, Phin, Samoi, Taoey, Kalum, Dak Cheung, Lamam, Xanxay, Phouvong Xaysettha, Xanamxay, are in the hinterlands.
There has never been any survey or collection of statistical data of how many Lao may be suffering from associated congenital birth defects, cancers and diseases that may be attributed to the dioxin contaminated herbicides. Furthermore, data on specific types of congenital disabilities remains very limited. From the 2005 Lao census, there appear to be unusually high incidents of disabilities in areas along the former Ho Chi Minh Trail in areas that were heavily sprayed by war time herbicides.
The population of these districts rank among the most poor of the country. They are largely ethnic minorities of the Mon-Khmer linguistic group, in the past labeled Lao Teung (Midland Lao). These are the aboriginal people of the Annamite Mountain Range that forms the border between Lao and Viet Nam.
In 2014, the War Legacies Project began a project to survey the villages in the heavily sprayed regions of Savannakhet and Salavan provinces to determine if there are any long-term health and environmental impacts of the wartime use of herbicides. Funded by Green Cross International and the Year of Giving Generously the project is gathering information about the number of people with disabilities in the sprayed regions that have conditions that are believed to be associate with exposure to dioxin contaminated herbicides. In addition, WLP is facilitating the provision of medical care and rehabilitation services to those PWDs the survey identifies.
The WLP effort focuses specifically on disabled persons with certain types of congenital problems who meet two conditions:
- The person has had one or more of the following medical conditions from birth: spinal bifida (see photo on right), deformed extremities (legs, arms, feet, hands and other orthopedic conditions), cleft palate, cleft lip, neurological disorders, hydrocephaly, microcephaly, chloracne, reproductive issues and learning disabilities.
- The person’s parents and grandparents lived in the Agent Orange sprayed areas along the former HCM Trail during the U.S. Secret War.
As of May 2019 WLP has surveyed 126 villages in Xepone, Nong, and Vilaybouly Districts of Savannakhet and in Taoey and Samoi districts in Salavan. The surveys identified over 500 children and adults who met these two conditions. There is an average of 4 – 5 children and youths with congenital birth defects in each of the villages surveyed. It is important to note that WLP is currently only able to survey visible congenital birth defects. Conditions such as congenital heart defects are not possible to identify. To date WLP has been able to assist over 120 of the people identified to recieve medical services, physical therapy, assistive devices or to attend vocational training. The next phase of the project is to provide support to the remaining people with congenital birth defects and disabilities as long as services are available in the Lao PDR. Starting in 2020, WLP hopes to be able to begin surveying the sprayed villages in Xekong and Attepeu provinces.
As part of the project, WLP is also gathering oral histories from the residents of the heavily sprayed villages to identify how the war in general impacted their communities. Before the war began to impact upon them in 1962, the elders interviewed by WLP’s team remember having sufficient food all year round from hunting, gathering, fishing and planting subsistence crops. “We never lacked for food in those days,” the elders repeatedly told WLP staff. Most families had herds of cows and buffaloes, some as many as 100. The decade of war took everything away — houses, clothes, animals, and food sources. By all accounts, the people of these districts are lagging behind the rest of the country. Post-war recovery has been particularly harsh on these districts. The people face not only the trauma of un-exploded ordnance, but also may be facing generational impacts from the AO-Dioxin spray without even knowing it. An investigation into the impacts of AO-Dioxin spraying on people’s health and well-being is long overdue.
By Arnold Schecter. Dioxins and Health offers readers quick access to essential information about dioxins and related compounds written in clear, simple language.