Dining with Dioxin

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Originally published in The Faster Times
March 7, 2012

Fish in Sepon.


Mrs. Saw had a gravely voice that bugled commands in a grandmotherly way. “Sit down!” she insisted. We obeyed, and she shoved steaming plates and bowls of homemade food our way—minced-meat salad, noodle soup, and fresh fish from the river. We ate at Mrs. Saw’s little wooden restaurant near the old Ho Chi Minh Trail most every day and night for nearly a week. And now I wonder: was her fish laced with dioxins? Was her meat safe to eat?

My husband, Jerry, and I knew US forces had sprayed that part of southern Laos with herbicides (mainly Agent Orange and its colorful cousins) during the Vietnam War. But we didn’t think so much about that spraying as we sat at Mrs. Saw’s table and downed her sticky rice with fish paste, chiles and fragrant herbs. We were in town researching unexploded ordnance (UXO) for our forthcoming book on the effects of the US bombings. We had our eyes peeled for live bombs—not poisoned foods.

But I’m thinking a lot more this month about the dioxin-laden herbicides our government sprayed and the possible effects in Laos today. Studies in Vietnam show increased levels of dioxins in the blood, fat and breast milk of people living today in areas that were sprayed. One investigation demonstrated the way dioxins move through the food chain, from contaminated soils to fish-pond sediments to the fish and duck meat that people eat.

But almost nothing is known about dioxins just over the border in Laos. American pilots sprayed the country in a covert war 40 years ago—that much we know. Leftover bombs from that war continue to kill people today—that we know, too. But our utter lack of knowledge about lingering effects from herbicides amounts to yet another crime of omission committed against the Laotian people.

Three recent news stories prompted my thoughts on this issue: the Environmental Protection Agency’s release last month of its long-awaited report on the health effects of dioxins, which notes that Americans usually eat their dioxins; the Monsanto settlement of a class-action suit brought by the residents of Nitro, WVa., home of a former plant that manufactured Agent Orange and poisoned the area’s land and water; and Monsanto’s partnership with Dow AgroSciences to use a new/old form of chemical warfare to combat superweeds (which are, ironically, the result of previous heavy pesticide applications).

Taken together, these stories reflect America’s scattered attitudes toward these chemical cocktails that affect our health, our planet and everyone’s food. The dioxins in question are pernicious, persistent pollutants that lodge in animal fat and remain in the environment for decades, even longer.

They’re linked to cancers and diseases of most every corner of the human body: reproductive, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, nervous and immune. Dioxins stunt growth and contribute to lower IQs. They harm living creatures at the tiniest doses, leading at least some health experts to say there is no safe level of dioxin exposure. (Others have set slightly different standards.) Dioxins are byproducts of combustion from—among other sources—garbage fires, paper mills and chemical plants that produce pesticides and herbicides.

That’s why Nitro residents fought to win 30 years worth of medical testing for people exposed to the mess Monsanto left in their town. The people won, and now Monsanto is footing a $93 million bill. (To put that in perspective, the company reported in January unexpectedly high quarterly profits of $126 million and a predicted 2012 free cash flow that could hit $1.5 billion.)

Yet, at the same time, Truthout reports the agrochemical giant is working with partner Dow to market a new form of genetically modified corn (Dow’s invention) that will withstand double doses of the herbicide 2,4-D combined with Roundup (Monsanto’s invention). If all goes according to plan, nothing but the GM corn will survive in the sprayed fields.

2,4-D was introduced to farmers as an herbicide in the 1940s. Scientists soon discovered that when mixed with another substance, 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), the result formed a quick and potent defoliant. That combination was eventually given the catchy name Agent Orange for the colored bands around the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored during the Vietnam War. At that time, military scientists didn’t realize Agent Orange contained toxic dioxins that have since poisoned unknown numbers of veterans and civilians.

Today, 2,4-D is commonly used with other chemicals to help make our lawns weed-free. Granted, 2,4-D alone isn’t as heavily dioxin-laden as Agent Orange. But it has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, hormone disruption, birth defects, neurologic problems and lowered sperm counts. Fans say 2,4-D meets all safety guidelines, but foes say it’s a toxin that indeed contains dioxins (keeping in mind that at least some scientists say there is no safe level of dioxin exposure). Whom to believe?

The contradictions smack of past debates over who knew what when about how bad Agent Orange was or wasn’t.

Today, pretty much everyone agrees: it was bad. Really, really bad. American companies made the stuff (agents Orange, Pink, Green, Purple, White and Blue). And US forces used a lot of the stuff (21 million gallons or more between 1961 and 1971). An estimated two-thirds of those herbicides contained dioxin. They keep up to 2 million acres in southern Vietnam barren today.

“There is no doubt that certain parts of Vietnam are still contaminated with dioxin from Agent Orange and that there are an unknown number of people living in Vietnam who have elevated levels of dioxin,” Arnold Schecter, professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Texas, told a House subcommittee in 2008. “We have documented elevated dioxins in Vietnam in over 100 articles published in the Western scientific literature.”

But what about Laos?

“Very little is known about AO in Laos and its impacts on the Laotian people,” said Susan Hammond, director of the War Legacies Project. Although some records are available showing USAF spraying along the Ho Chi Minh Trail under an operation called Ranch Hand, “nothing is known about what the CIA/Air America may have sprayed.”

Texas’s Schecter worked on perhaps the only studies to examine dioxin levels in Laotian foods. His team compared dioxin levels in 28 food samples bought in Vientiane (which wasn’t sprayed during the war) and Sepon (which was).

His research caught my eye—and got me thinking about my week of eating in Mrs. Saw’s restaurant. So I emailed him.

“Dioxins are persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, and can last in humans for decades and in the environment for much longer, perhaps hundreds of years,” he replied. But he told me his research in Laos had been hampered by a lack of funding as well as the danger of UXO (the very reason I was in the area doing research for the week I was eating with Mrs. Saw). His results were inconclusive. The team hadn’t found elevated dioxin levels that would allow them to draw a line from Agent Orange to the food supply today.

But when I combed through his report, published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health in 2003, I lingered over a few interesting findings: two fish fat samples from Sepon had the highest dioxin levels of all foods tested. Dioxins accumulate in fat, and fat levels vary dramatically among different types of fish. (Here, Schecter notes an important point: Laotians don’t shy from fish fat; they even see it as a delicacy.) Overall: pork liver, duck eggs and fish from Sepon tested higher for toxicity than the same foods from Vientiane.

(Side note: if ever you find yourself eating in Laos, wondering about possible dioxins, eel had the lowest toxicity among fish tested.)

The report concludes that elevated dioxin levels “were not found in any of [the] food samples that would definitely confirm contamination from Agent Orange.” It’s possible the varying levels could be attributed to other factors.

But I think of Susan Hammond—someone who works with war victims—and her approach to dioxins in Laos:

“The important thing for people to understand is that we really do not know the full extent of the damage that it can cause in the human body, but we know that it is harmful, so in this case, the precautionary principle is especially important to follow,” she said. “Even if we cannot yet say that one person’s cancer or birth defect is caused by dioxin, we know enough about its toxicity to know it is not something to mess around with.”

(Remember that scene in Men in Black when Tommy Lee Jones is telling Will Smith about “the big secret”? “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe,” Tommy says. “Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” I love that scene.)

There are a lot of unknowns about dioxins in Laos. But the knowns can tell us something.

Databases at the US National Archives contain records of 122 Air Force herbicide raids over southern Laos in 1966, one in 1967, four in 1969 and one in 1970. This is highly incomplete data (Jeanne Stellman, professor and deputy head of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, documents 210 herbicide missions in Laos and says that number, too, is incomplete. Her website contains a video of sprayings in Southeast Asia.).

But most National Archives files contain precise coordinates for the herbicide dumps listed; coordinates that can be plugged into Google Earth and analyzed. Some of the missions targeted roads; others aimed for mountains or trees. Some files note the extent of cloud cover, the presence of haze or the time of day. In essence, these files begin to paint little pictures of the scenes pilots saw over southern Laos, turning distant targets into actual places.

Real places with real mountains, real trees—and real people.

According to Stellman’s research, up to 4.8 million people were present in villages that were directly sprayed in southern Vietnam. No one knows how many people were exposed to the raids in Laos.

And no one really knows whether the fish swimming in rivers near the old Ho Chi Minh Trail are safe to eat. Or the fat pigs, grazing cows and chickens that peck the ground around “hotspots” where herbicides were stored, spilled, attacked or abandoned during the war in Laos. No one really knows where those hotspots are, but experts agree: such places would harbor the highest levels of contamination.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends reducing animal fat in the diet to lower exposure to dioxin. It also advises people to pay attention to local fishing advisories about “particular water bodies where local contamination has occurred.”

That’s dandy advice in this country. But what is a Lao person to do in a land of 40-year-old secrets?

Just a few blocks from Mrs. Saw’s restaurant is a river where fishermen congregate in the early evenings. Their boats, ironically, are made from the aluminum fuel drop tanks that American bombers jettisoned over Laos during war. One night, we met a man named Mr. Udon as he came trundling down the riverside path with a net and basket in hand. “Bomb. America,” he said cheerfully as he hopped into his drop-tank boat.

Then he paddled into the approaching dusk, aiming to fetch himself dinner in a swift-flowing current of unknowns.

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