From deformed infants to grandparents with cancer, families near Vietnam's Danang Airbase have long blamed the toxic legacy of war for their ills, but after a decades-long wait an "Agent Orange" clean-up was finally launched on Thursday, AFP reports/
The defoliants were sprayed over swathes of jungle in South Vietnam in an attempt to flush out Viet Cong communist guerrillas by depriving them of tree cover and food.
Washington still disputes the "uncertain" link between dioxin exposure and ill health.
The joint US-Vietnamese clean-up will use technology to heat the contaminated soil to temperatures high enough to break the dioxin down into harmless compounds.
Danang Airbase was a key site in the US Vietnam War defoliant programme, and much of the 80 million litres (21 million gallons) of Agent Orange used during "Operation Ranch Hand" was mixed, stored and loaded onto planes there.
"During the war, when we lived right by the runway, some nights we would have to cover our mouths because of a strange smell," Danang resident Nguyen Thi Binh, 78, told AFP.
Three of Binh's five children are severely mentally and physically disabled. For years she thought this was due to sins committed in a past life, but now believes it could be due to her and her late husband's dioxin exposure.
"I heard it might be Agent Orange," she told AFP in her tiny house in Danang city, as her adult daughters crawled around her like infants.
Speaking at the launch ceremony, US Ambassador David Shear described the clean-up as a "historic milestone".
"Over the next few years, workers will dig up the contaminated soil and sediment and place it in a stockpile, where it will be treated," he said.
"This process uses high temperatures to break down the dioxin in the contaminated soil and make it safe by Vietnamese and US standards for the many men, women, and children who live and work in this area."
The $43 million project comes as the former foes draw closer in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.