Hanoi fire re-exposes major risk management shortcomings in Vietnam

By Tran Thi Tuyet Hanh    September 3, 2019 | 07:45 pm PT
Near Bien Hoa airport, I've met citizens anguished that they were not informed of dioxin dangers at the most contaminated spot in the world for 40 years.
Tran Thi Tuyet Hanh

Tran Thi Tuyet Hanh

Residents in the vicinity of the southern airport were not told what dioxin was, where it was located in the neighborhood and what they were supposed to do about it.

The Bien Hoa airport was where the U.S. army stored Agent Orange which contained the deadly chemical dioxin, a defoliant they used during the Vietnam War. The airport is considered the most dioxin-contaminated spot in the country and the world.

A resident here can be exposed to between 60.4 and 102.8 picograms (pg) of dioxin per kilo of body weight a day if they consume agricultural products grown in and around the airport. The WHO's tolerable daily intake is 1-4pg per kilo.

When I participated in a program to help reduce the health-threatening effects dioxin has on the food there in 2007, the reality shocked me.

By then, many local and international studies had confirmed Bien Hoa airport was a hot dioxin-contaminated zone. However, when we interviewed 400 locals on a random basis, very few of them knew they were living in a contaminated area, and the majority of them didn't even know what dioxin was.

They also were completely ignorant of where it was in their surroundings, how the toxin enters the human body, what effects it would have on their health, or how to avoid its impacts. They only showed concern when they heard of someone having cancer, or a child with birth defects. I once visited a family with five of six children born deformed.

After several media campaigns promoting the prevention of exposure to dioxin, many locals expressed their gratitude. On the other hand, there were senior citizens who were aghast.

"Why is it that for more than 40 years, no one said anything to us?"

That question by a local man still haunts me.

He said his family had never been given any information, warning, or instruction by authorities. They unknowingly went on with their lives for decades. He said many people still raised their cattle and ate and sold crabs, snails, and fish they found in the contaminated area.

It was then that I came to realize that there was a huge gap in Vietnam's management of environmental health. In developed countries, authorities and experts are responsible for evaluating the impacts of environmental, biological and physical risks have on public health so that risks can be communicated and managed well.

Environmental health officers are stationed from the central to local councils.

In Vietnam, this professional expertise is very new.

The bad becomes worse

In the case of Hanoi light bulb warehouse fire last week, the authorities have issued inconsistent statements regarding mercury leak from the incident. What they should have done is promptly assess and inform the health and environment risks to protect the residents.

Hoang Van Thuc, Deputy Director of Vietnam Environment Administration of Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment wears a gas mask at Rang Dong lightbulb warehouse on August 31, 2019, three days after the fire. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

An environment official wears a face mask as he visits the burned Rang Dong light bulb warehouse in Hanoi, August 31, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

On August 29, the Ha Dinh Ward People’s Committee issued a food contamination risk warning. However, the notice was retracted the next day because it was issued "without rightful authorization" and there was "insufficient evidence to support it."

Several announcements regarding the risk of the fire followed, but none of them addressed some core public concerns.

Contrast this with what happens in other countries. Let’s take Australia as an example. If there is a fire at a factory, an environmental health specialist will quickly evaluate the risk. He/she/they would examine, for instance, what materials, products, chemicals were in the factory before and after the fire, the weather conditions including rainfall, temperature, humidity during and after the fire, how the hazardous chemicals are likely to spread and the extent of their impact.

They would also look at the location of the factory and its distance from the nearby residential area. Characteristics of the surrounding population as well as the total number of workers – altogether will be taken into account so that a proper estimate of the number of affected individuals and those at high risk is generated. The specialist/s would also run a quick assessment of the environmental quality and record any initial acute symptoms.

Although the entire risk cannot be thoroughly assessed at first, this preliminary information, combined with professional experience, enables initial recommendations to be made immediately to prevent exposure and mitigate risks and impacts.

The scientific, accurate information is then conveyed in a professional manner that is easily understood. The spokesperson needs to be open and honest about the uncertainties involved. This is very important for the public when an emergency occurs.

A non-negotiable principle in this work is that when no complete risk assessment result is available, no assertive conclusions that an area is "pollution-free", "safe for the public", or "safe for the workers" should be made. Typically, there will be unfinished business like sampling of the soil, water, air, food and so on for the risks to be calculated more accurately. This takes time and needs expertise and advanced equipment.

Authorities would need to follow up and update the public with specific and precise information when more scientific evidence is presented. They can confirm safety for the public only when there is sufficient evidence to back it up.

At times of crisis or environmental disasters, the situation can be complicated and the public can be in shock and panic. So authorities need to have a plan and coordinate drills in advance to be prepared and execute effective crisis responses.

To make inconsistent, hasty announcements on the ground of insufficient data is not a wise thing to do. It aggravates anxiety and suspicion among the people.

Risk communication should be a top priority for any government, from the commune to the highest levels. If it is done right, based on scientific evidence and a sense of responsibility, it will help the public be well informed and aware of the crisis, as well as proper solutions. It will also reduce the number of infections, casualties and eventually avoid a waste of scarce resources.

If this does not happen, space is created for rumors, resentment and loss of trust.

*Tran Thi Tuyet Hanh is an environmental health lecturer at Hanoi University of Public Health. The opinions expressed are her own.

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