AAP staff report
ST. PAUL, Minn. – As a scientist working in the area of wastewater treatment Mai Thanh Truyet, Ph.D. has also turned his attention to what he says are serious environmental issues of his native Vietnam.
Having already earned a doctorate at the Besançon in Eastern France, Dr. Truyet came to the United States as a boat refugee from Vietnam. He continued his postdoctoral work with the study red blood cells at the University of Minnesota Medical School from 1985-87, before moving his family to California to work in the environmental area.
With a successful career as a scientist working on American water systems for several years, Dr. Truyet continues to work at age 69, while also taking a deep interest at the array of challenges facing Vietnam, from food and agriculture, to clean water and the environment. He has written extensively on wastewater issues in Vietnam, including ground water and pollution – with a resourcefulness for previously unknown data that has impressed readers of his books.
“The data was provided by friends who are still working and living in Vietnam,” he said. “Since 1999 to 2002, every time a friend or family member came back to visit Vietnam I would ask them to collect soil and water samples in the north and south – especially the Mekong delta – to do analysis and to make suggestions and conclusions especially for the arsenic issues.”
Truyet said that to understand the arsenic issue in Vietnam, just compare it to similar problems in Bangladesh and Tibet. There, scientists studied water from 4,000 wells and discovered levels of arsenic so strong and in Tibet area found in water that they anticipate cancer related deaths far above the norm in those areas.
Truyet said that his conclusions on Vietnam got him branded as a troublemaker by the Vietnamese government. “People are getting arsenicosis,” he added.
The arsenic comes from two sources, the Mekong river starts in high Tibet, where the soil has a lot of arsenic in it, and it is brought down river in low concentrations. Now the combination of borax that is being disturbed with mining and increasing the levels many times over.
“Another source is arsenic herbicide and pesticides in very high concentrations,” he added. “Right now to increase the development of food they spray a lot of extra fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and that puts arsenic into the groundwater.”
Truyet said the Vietnamese need to do a lot more education on the safe use of chemicals. This is important when you consider the export of rice, catfish, shrimp and other products, he added.
In addition, Truyet said there needs to be more agricultural and water treatment training for better crop rotation and soil preservation practices. The U.S. has already sued Vietnam over “dumping” of large amounts of fish and seafood – but less is said about the long term impact on the high levels of harvesting, he added.
Truyet said that his motivation in also to help as a resource for Vietnamese scientists and engineers, who he said are not always will to freely express their professional opinion if they feel it will conflict with the goals of the communist government.
He said Vietnam has experienced wartime pollution but that by in large the pollution today is a result or poor civic and industrial planning and is not a remnant of the war that ended more than three decades ago.
“For Vietnam the situation is different,” said Truyet. “There, any industry or enterprise does not have any treatment plan and waste water go to the canals and rivers, and that is why it becomes a black river.”
As an environmentalist and president of the Science and Technology Association, Truyet has completed studies since 1995 that have been published. His latest book, Moi Truong Viet Nam, published by the Vietnamese American Medical Research Foundation, discusses various environmental challenges in detail over 25 chapters.
From dangerously high arsenic levels in the Mekong river, to the conditions turning other sea connected waterways in black rivers (completely polluted).
“There is not threshold limit,” he said. “There is no way to clear up a river like we do in the USA.”
Truyet goes on to discuss fresh water and underground issues in subsequent chapters, and then goes into soil and air pollution. He has an entire chapter devoted to solid waste problems and landfill and a wastewater treatment plan.
“I talking about biological and solid waste, and about Vietnam importing electronic waste from United States,” he said.
The business of electronic waste has not regulations, he added. They dispose of television screens and monitors and computer hardware that can leaves up to a pound of lead and mercury poisoning depending on the component. He said the large and uncontrolled landfills are showing signs of absorbing heavy metals, and making its way to the water used for consumption and irrigation.
“After that it becomes very hazardous and toxic waste,” he said. “Especially when we are talking about food poisoning and additives with chemicals like this, this is a dangerous situation for Vietnamese community.”
Truyet revisits the claims of Agent Orange and the new evidence about dioxin issues since their peak use from 1961 to 1971 as part of Operation Ranch Hand, a U.S. Army mission to defoliate areas south of 17th Parallel during the Vietnam War.
He was a witness for Dow Chemical, the company that provided the chemical munitions for the U.S. military in the war, in the 2005 lawsuit in which the Vietnamese government claimed the United States was responsible for damages to the environment and people and decided to go after 34 manufacturers for war crimes.
The suit was dismissed and Truyet said that these chemical had half lifes and that it is difficult to claim an impact would have lasted more than seven years into the present day. He also said the area that chemical were used was limited and largely along the 17th parallel.
Truyet went on to talk about bauxite and uranium mining in Vietnam, and how he proved that the Chinese had a plan in Vietnam to develop and extract bauxite mining in the Vietnamese highlands. He said they covered up planning the and research to extract uranium after the International Council on Energy found about 200,000 tons of uranium oxide in the highland with concentration of .006 percent.
“This purity is similar to South Africa,” he added. “The Americans and the Japanese did the research.”
Truyet went so far as to suggest that the uranium exploration is connected to the dislocation issues of the 15 ethnic groups that live in the highlands is related to their forced removal.
The population of Vietnam was about 45 million after the war and it is approaching 90 million today, said Truyet. This is over population, he added, and depending and the migration of people from one region to another is another impact on the environment and resources.
The last three chapters look to the future development in Vietnam and the expectations for the Vietnam government in joining the international community. He offers suggestions on how to best do business in Vietnam in ways that will take care of people.
Truyet is confident that his publications in Vietnamese are making its way to the right people in Vietnam via the Internet. The young people understand and react, he said. The older communists from the revolution do not was to hear it.
He also takes his message to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. It has cost him in that the Vietnamese government has not responded to his visa requests to visit.