By Alexandra “Xan” Oakley, PCRI Communication Team
Agent Orange was used during the Vietnam War in an herbicidal warfare program known as Operation Ranch Hand. The United States military sprayed Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam and the Korean demilitarized zone to remove the dense tropical foliage providing enemy cover. It is an herbicide and defoliant chemical that has been associated with a variety of long-term health complications in humans.
Agent Orange is composed of a 50/50 mix of two herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, that remained toxic over a short period—a scale of days or weeks—and then degraded. There is evidence that Air Force and Air Force Reserve members who served anytime from 1969 to 1986 and regularly operated, maintained, and served onboard C-123 aircraft to deliver and spray Agent Orange during the Vietnam War were exposed.
Production of the 2,4,5-T component of Agent Orange was halted in the 1980s. However, 2,4-D is still produced by Dow Agroscience and is a common component of over 70 products, including many common weed and feed products. Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds are highly toxic environmental persistent organic pollutants that break down very slowly. The dioxin contaminating Agent Orange, 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD), is a highly toxic form of dioxin.
Agent Orange can cause a variety of health problems in humans including a potential for birth defects and health issues in the progeny of men who have been exposed. There is also evidence it may be a causative agent of prostate cancer, especially some of the more aggressive types of prostate cancer. The VA now acknowledges that Agent Orange can cause health issues, but this was not the case for years. Many veterans were denied healthcare and compensation because the government claimed an absence of proof that Agent Orange caused prostate cancer. Veterans fought back. The first lawsuit filed was by veteran Paul Reutershan. Paul, who was 28 years old at the time, claimed that his chloracne and abdominal cancer were due to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. His claim with the VA was denied, but since Paul was unable to sue the VA or the US government, he filed a personal injury lawsuit in New York against Dow Chemical and two other companies that produced chemical agents, including Agent Orange. Paul appeared on the Today Show in the spring of 1978, stating, “I died in Vietnam, but I didn’t even know it.”
Paul founded Agent Orange Victims International (AOVI) just before he passed away in December of 1978. He asked that its members continue to fight for those affected by Agent Orange after he died. A workman’s compensation attorney was hired who filed a class action lawsuit against six companies—Dow, Monsanto, Hercules, Northwest Industries, Diamond Shamrock, and North American Phillips. Lawyers across the nation added their clients to the suit, and the case grew and grew. The case ended up at Judge Jack Weinstein’s court in New York City, who defined a class of eligible veterans that served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972 from the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, who believed they or their children were harmed by Agent Orange exposure.
On the eve of the trial scheduled for May 1984, Judge Weinstein worked out a settlement, stressing that while he felt the case was weak, the chemical companies would be unlikely to find a jury who would not side with the veterans and feel for their children with birth defects. The companies agreed to the settlement, as long as they did not have to admit liability. Thus, the Agent Orange Fund was created. The settlement was $180 million, and immediately accrued interest. The first checks were pulled from the fund in March 1989. Over the course of its activity, $197 million was paid to 52,000 American veterans and their families. $74 million went to social service programs, $7 million went to Australian veterans, $1 million to New Zealand veterans, and the other roughly $50 million paid for the legal fees of the lawyers involved in the settlement.
Although the fund provided a payment program and a class assistance program to help those exposed to Agent Orange, the fund was closed on September 27, 1997, when its assets were fully distributed. Within six years, several other cases were filed by veterans who were not included in the initial settlement and by the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange. However, all cases and appeals were dismissed.
The VA finally acknowledged that there was suggestive evidence that Agent Orange was a cause of prostate cancer after The Health and Medicine Division of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded its report Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 1996. This report showed a positive association between prostate cancer and exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam, such as Agent Orange. In 2013, a study at the Portland VA Medical Center and Oregon Health and Science University found that veterans exposed to Agent Orange are not only at a higher risk for prostate cancer, they are likely to have more aggressive forms of prostate cancer. This recognition finally got the ball rolling to ensure veterans have the opportunity to receive treatment and compensation.
Since the VA and federal law now presume that certain diseases result from exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides, the process for service members to file for disability and receive treatment bypasses the normal requirements. This is good news for men who need prostate cancer treatment, as they can avoid some of the burden that is all too familiar when navigating the VA health system. Veterans qualify for a free Agent Orange Registry Health Exam. This exam alerts them to possible long-term health problems that may be related to Agent Orange exposure. You can visit https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/coordinators.asp to find your local VA Environmental Health Coordinator and set up an Agent Orange Registry health exam.
Surviving spouses, dependent children, and dependent parents of veterans who were exposed to herbicides during military service and died as the result of prostate cancer may be eligible for survivors' benefits. You can visit https://www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/agentorange-c123.asp to find out more information about service qualifications and eligibility criteria. You can see the full list of diseases the VA associates with Agent Orange posted below. More information is also available at the VA website at VA's Guide to Agent Orange Claims. You can also call the Agent Orange Help Line at 1-800-749-8387 or send an email to GW/AOHelpline@vba.va.gov. You must provide your name, e-mail address, telephone and/or fax number, and VA file number/Social Security Number.
Diseases Associated With Agent Orange:
- AL Amyloidosis
A rare disease caused when an abnormal protein, amyloid, enters tissues or organs
- Chronic B-cell Leukemias
A type of cancer which affects white blood cells
- Chloracne (or similar acneform disease)
A skin condition that occurs soon after exposure to chemicals and looks like common forms of acne seen in teenagers. Under VA's rating regulations, it must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides.
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
A disease characterized by high blood sugar levels resulting from the body’s inability to respond properly to the hormone insulin
- Hodgkin's Disease
A malignant lymphoma (cancer) characterized by progressive enlargement of the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen, and by progressive anemia
- Ischemic Heart Disease
A disease characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart, that leads to chest pain
- Multiple Myeloma
A cancer of plasma cells, a type of white blood cell in bone marrow
- Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma
A group of cancers that affect the lymph glands and other lymphatic tissue
- Parkinson's Disease
A progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects muscle movement
- Peripheral Neuropathy, Early-Onset
A nervous system condition that causes numbness, tingling, and motor weakness. Under VA's rating regulations, it must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of herbicide exposure.
- Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
A disorder characterized by liver dysfunction and by thinning and blistering of the skin in sun-exposed areas. Under VA's rating regulations, it must be at least 10 percent disabling within one year of exposure to herbicides.
- Prostate Cancer
Cancer of the prostate; one of the most common cancers among men
- Respiratory Cancers (includes lung cancer)
Cancers of the lung, larynx, trachea, and bronchus
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi's sarcoma, or mesothelioma)
A group of different types of cancers in body tissues such as muscle, fat, blood and lymph vessels, and connective tissues
Institute of Medicine. Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 1996. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; January 2018.
Ansbaugh, N., Shannon, J., Mori, M., Farris, P. E., & Garzotto, M. (2013). AGENT ORANGE AS A RISK FACTOR FOR HIGH-GRADE PROSTATE CANCER. Cancer, 119(13), 2399–2404. http://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.27941
National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. Dioxins. Fact Sheets: (2012, June) https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/dioxins_new_508.pdf ; January 2018
Institute of Medicine. Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2008. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; January 2018.
Institute of Medicine. Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2014. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; April 2018
Charmie, K., White, R.W., Lee, D., Joonha, O., Ellison, Lars. (2008, July 29) AGENT ORANGE EXPOSURE, VIETNAM WAR VETERANS, AND THE RISK OF PROSTATE CANCER. Cancer, 113(9), 2464-2470. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/cncr.23695