By Associated Press

Vietnam started the first phase of a joint plan with the US on Friday to clean up environmental damage caused by the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, a lasting legacy of the Vietnam war.

The work concentrates on a former US military base in central Vietnam, where the defoliant was stored during the war that ended more than three decades ago.

It is the first time the two sides have worked together on the ground to clean up contamination.

A statement by the US embassy in Hanoi said Vietnam’s ministry of defence will begin sweeping areas near the Da Nang airport for unexploded ordnance. It will then work with the US Agency for International Development to remove dioxin – a chemical used in Agent Orange – from soil and sediment at the site. This action is expected to begin early next year.

US aircraft sprayed millions of gallons of the chemical over South Vietnam during the war to destroy guerrilla fighters’ jungle cover.

Contamination from dioxin which has been linked to cancers and birth defects – has remained a thorny topic between the former foes. Washington was slow to respond to the issue, arguing for years that more research was needed to show that the wartime spraying caused health problems and disabilities among Vietnamese.

The $32m (£19.7m) project will remove dioxin from 29 hectares (71 acres) of land at the Da Nang site. A 2009 study of the area by the Canadian environmental firm Hatfield Consultants found chemical levels that were 300 to 400 times higher than international limits.

Vietnam’s Red Cross estimates up to 3 million Vietnamese have suffered health-related problems from Agent Orange exposure. The US has said the number is far lower and that other health and environmental factors are likely to blame for many illnesses and disabilities.

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