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THACH SON (Vietnam) Gazing at the Soviet-era factory that looms over his northern Vietnamese commune, Quang Van Vinh remembers what the farmland here looked like before it became known as a “cancer village”.

“This used to be a vast garden of bamboo, banana, jackfruit and longan trees,” says the 62-year-old, visiting his long-abandoned childhood home, now a muddy wasteland of brick kilns.

“It's sad that there's almost no sign of life anymore.”

Vinh says things changed quickly in the Red River village in 1962 after the Lam Thao fertiliser plant was built and started pumping wastewater into streams and rice fields, and black smoke into the sky.

“You could smell the factory's smoke everywhere,” he says. “People started to cough. All those trees died. Local people didn't know why. Then the authorities moved us all out about 15 years ago.”

Vinh says his son died of throat cancer in 2000 aged 23.

“I really think my son died of cancer because of industrial pollution,” says Vinh, though he has no scientific proof to back his belief. Dr Le Van Ton, the head of the local clinic, said the annual death toll from cancer in the commune of 7,000 had climbed almost every year for nearly a decade - to 15 deaths last year from three in 1999.

The doctor said he is now treating 41 cancer cases, including a primary school student. “Most of the cancer victims in our commune used to live in areas close to the factory,” he said. A few years ago, Thach Son made national headlines as a “cancer village”.

Government officials came, took water samples and looked at health statistics, said people's committee deputy chairman Nguyen Van Thang.

Then they left and the commune has not heard from them since, he added.

Like many developing countries, communist Vietnam has opted for rapid industrialisation which has created prosperity but also taken an often catastrophic toll on the natural environment and public health.

Vietnam now has hundreds of industrial parks and thousands of factories, and less than one third of their liquid waste is treated before it is discharged into waterways, the government says.

Environmental inspectors must announce their factory visits in advance and fines are so low that many companies prefer to pay up rather than fit expensive air and water pollution control systems.

Foreign investors meeting at the biannual Vietnam Business Forum (VBF) conference in Hanoi on Monday said they were “deeply concerned about the worsening degradation of Vietnam's environment”.

“The dumping of industrial pollutants directly into human water supplies has reached alarming proportions, destroying aquaculture and agricultural livelihoods of millions of farmers,” said Baker and McKenzie lawyer Fred Burke, delivering the VBF report on the manufacturing sector.

“A manufacturing facility is literally more likely to get hit by lightning than suffer any serious legal consequences of ignoring the pollution laws, especially if it is state-owned.”

Rivers and streams in the biggest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where many houses have groundwater wells, are often garbage-strewn open sewers which, local scientists say, have become biological “zero-life zones”.

A recent cholera outbreak, one of several in Vietnam over the past year, sickened 23 people in central Nghe An province. It was traced to bacteria in fish and oysters harvested from the polluted Mai Giang River.

Vietnam, unlike China, has not yet seen protests against factories or over other environmental issues but its leaders have woken up to the fact that the environmental carnage can no longer be ignored.

In recent months, authorities have launched an unprecedented crackdown against several major polluters - showing both a new will to act and the limitations of Vietnam's environmental laws and enforcement agencies.

Taiwanese food additive maker Vedan was caught in early September allegedly dumping 100,000 cubic metres of untreated effluent a month through hidden pipes into the southern Thi Vai River, killing a stretch of the waterway.—AFP