Serious health effects linked to Agent Orange exposure

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Updated report cites sufficient evidence for various cancers, genetic health problems

The infamous and controversial chemical Agent Orange, used as a war tactic during the Vietnam War, may not seem familiar to students and youth of our current generation. However, its impact on human health can still be observed in today’s society.

The UC Davis Cancer Center published a 2008 study in a scientific journal entitled Cancer, with results showing that Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange have an increased risk of prostate cancer compared to those not exposed. In addition, individuals exposed developed the disease at a younger age and had more aggressive forms of the disease.

More recently, Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2014 was released last year by The Institute of Medicine and The National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine. The report links the toxic chemical to even more diseases such as bladder cancer and other various cancers.

“All committee members [of the updated 2014 report] are responsible for writing, reviewing and approving the papers. Our task was to evaluate if exposure could lead to cancer and if there is sufficient evidence, we can assign cause and effect,” said Erin Bell, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University at Albany and committee member of the updated 2014 Veterans and Agent Orange report.

During the 1960s Vietnam War period, Agent Orange was the most common defoliant, used to destroy thick and dense forests in order to expose the enemy and their hiding grounds.

The notorious name came from the color of the striped barrel the chemical was shipped in. A combination of two synthetic compounds, it was contaminated during manufacture with dioxin tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD).

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies TCDD as a group 1 carcinogen, indicating exposure is carcinogenic and therefore capable of causing cancer. The defoliant was banned in 1970 after researchers found evidence of birth defects in lab animals exposed to it.

“When exposed to certain forms of dioxin, serious types of acne of face and skin can occur, called chloracne. This condition occurred within a shorter time period after exposure,” Bell said.

The 2008 UC Davis Cancer Center study looked at thousands of male war veterans in their sixties and reported the incidence of prostate cancer.

“Looking at prostate cancer, it is hard to study because it is so common in older men. [Linking exposure and risk is] hard to detect because you need a very large study. There was evidence for small risk, but it was consistent,” said Professor Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center and a professor in the Department of Health Sciences.

This study revealed that between 1988 and 2006, twice as many men exposed to Agent Orange had prostate cancer and were four times more likely to have the disease than individuals not exposed.

“The population is still affected, and there is a risk of developing diseases from an exposure that happens many years ago,” said Maarten Bosland, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and committee member of the updated 2014 Veterans and Agent Orange report.

From 1962 to 1971, an estimated 20 million gallons of chemicals were sprayed over the southern half of Vietnam, contaminating the ground, all of the troops and civilian populations that were present at the time.

Upon the soldiers returning from war, many veteran advocate groups called for research and government help after noticing numerous cancer-related health issues.

“With any type of exposure, one of challenges of public health is that it that change doesn’t happen very quickly,” Bell said.

A strong push from the public and the discovery of more evidence linking Agent Orange to various diseases eventually brought change to both healthcare and environmental policy.

“These studies led to a turning point because we noticed a wide range of outcomes that were not immediately obvious from when a soldier returns from war. It prompted coverage of veterans for some long term and chronic effects,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

The congressionally mandated Veterans and Agent Orange Updates has produced significant results in assigning linkage between the chemical and human health issues.

One example is soft tissue sarcoma, a cancer that can begin in the muscles, fat, nerves and blood vessels of the body. Other diseases linked to Agent Orange include Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system affecting the white blood cells that impact the body’s ability to fight off infection, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, where the body produces too many abnormal white blood cells.

The final and most recent update of Veterans and Agent Orange has cited suggestive evidence for bladder cancer and hypothyroidism, a condition where the body does not produce adequate amounts of thyroid hormone, impacting metabolism.

Hertz-Picciotto has chaired the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine panels on Agent Orange and Vietnam Veterans. The committee series began in 1994 and was put in place by congressional legislation that aimed to address the health effects of Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

“First, we have a public hearing to hear what veteran groups want to say and the issues they want to address. Then we organize how we want to proceed,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

However, veterans are not the only group of people who have been exposed to this  chemical.

“I have heard testimonies of people who handled the shipping of Agent Orange barrels, but still got exposed on the military base, not from combat,” Bosland said.

There is large portion of individuals exposed to the chemical who are often overlooked within the civilian and veteran population of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, where the chemical was sprayed years ago. In those areas, dioxins still remain in the soil and the population is in turn being affected to this day.

Even children born to exposed parents today are at risk for birth defects and malformations. Some children die from these unfortunate complications.

Although there is not strong evidence to link these specific disorders to Agent Orange, common issues seen are abnormal neurological and physical development, congenital heart conditions and cancerous tumors.

“We need more information for unique populations [civilians of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos] to more fully understand how exposures may impact their health,” Bell said.

The health impacts of Agent Orange can still be seen in today’s society, not just in U.S. veterans, but to all those exposed.

“Awareness allows us to ask questions and consider all impacts when we do have these exposures,” Bell said. “It [allows] us to make decisions to minimize negative health effects.”
Written by: Shivani Kamal — science@theaggie.org