.c The Associated Press
By IAN STEWART LAM XUAN, Vietnam (AP) - Efforts to rid Vietnam's battlefields of countless unexploded bombs and land mines may be unleashing a long dormant enemy - Agent Orange's deadly toxins. Old bombs, artillery shells and land mines litter the wasteland just south of what was the demilitarized zone during the Vietnam War, killing innocents long after the conflict's end. Yet the work to locate and destroy the war's leftover ordinance is churning up soil saturated with the American military's war-era herbicide, Agent Orange. Experts are concerned that the ensuing release of poisonous chemicals could produce an environmental and health disaster. Vietnamese army engineers routinely detonate the bombs and mines they uncover in their campaign to make the land of central Quang Tri province safe again. ``The process of de-mining frees up this soil, destabilizes it, and soil erosion then carries those toxins into the water system,'' says Donald Price, a graduate research fellow from James Madison University in Virginia. He is in Vietnam to study the long-term environmental consequences of the mine removal. Agent Orange, used by the U.S. military to clear away the forest canopy its enemies hid beneath during the war, contains a cancer-causing byproduct, dioxin. It has been linked with a growing number of medical ailments in both U.S. war veterans and their Vietnamese counterparts. Once in the water system, the dioxin may readily pollute the entire food chain, Price warns. Working through the U.S. Department of Defense-chartered Humanitarian De-mining Information Center, Price is the first scientist to examine the combined effect of chemicals and explosives on Vietnam's ecology. His findings, while preliminary, point to potentially dangerous repercussions if Vietnam goes headlong into an all-out mine removal campaign. ``You want to do the humanitarian thing and clear the land mines, but with the toxins present in the area you'll do more harm than good,'' he said. Along Quang Tri's Highway 9, which bends and winds with the curves of the Cua Viet River, hamlets and villages are scattered throughout one of the most heavily bombed parts of the planet. The same stretch of road - once dotted with U.S. artillery fire bases - was also doused with Agent Orange. Dubbed Operation Ranch Hand, U.S. military C-123 cargo planes blanketed the South Vietnamese countryside with Agent Orange. By 1971, the United States had sprayed about 12 million gallons of the defoliant over parts of southern and central Vietnam. The total load included about 375 pounds of dioxin; a mere trace of dioxin can cause cancer. Vietnam says Agent Orange has poisoned its former troops and is also responsible for countless birth defects in children of war veterans. Similar findings are apparent among U.S. combat troops exposed to Agent Orange. Although no definitive link between Agent Orange, birth defects and other illnesses has been established, evidence is mounting. The U.S.-based Institute of Medicine released a study last year that suggested a strong connection between the herbicide and a serious birth defect called spina bifida. Earlier studies tied exposure to Agent Orange with cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and soft-tissue sarcoma. Vietnamese studies and independent research by Syracuse University's Dr. Arnold Schecter indicate Quang Tri is tainted with dioxin - often in areas laden with unexploded bombs. Down Highway 9 near the tiny hamlet of Lam Xuan, young soldiers scour the side of the road looking for bombs. ``In most cases we explode old bombs we find,'' said army Col. Le Doan Luc. ``It's safer than trying to handle the aging and fragile bombs.'' One day's work across a 100-yard stretch finds 32 unexploded U.S. 122-mm artillery shells in this area alone. In Vietnam, at least 5,000 people have been killed by old bombs and land mines since the war ended in 1975. ``I can only say they are everywhere,'' said Luc, who leads the effort to rid Quang Tri of the remaining millions of unexploded bombs. Although he agrees with Price's concern for the environment, his pressing interest is more immediate - to make the rice paddies and village roads of his home province safe from explosives. ``We don't have the manpower or the technology to deal with this problem any other way,'' he said. For Quang Tri, the options are grim: Clear the land mines and risk a potential environmental crisis - or live, if they can, with an army's arsenal worth of unspent explosives just under foot. AP-NY-10-31-97 0309EST

 Copyright 1997 The
Associated Press.  The information 
contained in the AP news report may not be published, 
broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without 
prior written authority of The Associated Press.