What Is Agent Orange?

For the better part of a decade, beginning in 1962, the U.S. government laid down about 19 million gallons of a powerful herbicide across Vietnam. It was a wartime practice designed to strip cover from the hiding enemy, deprive them of food, and clear out areas around U.S. positions.

Agent Orange still causes sickness more than 50 years later.

The human cost of this liquid herbicide (called Agent Orange because of the orange stripes on the drums that carried it) is difficult to fathom. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says 14 serious illnesses result from exposure to Agent Orange. They include:

The VA adds that some birth defects in the children of Vietnam veterans, including spina bifida, are tied to exposure to Agent Orange.

Many other illnesses are still being studied. More than two generations after its first use, Agent Orange continues to be a major health issue for both the people exposed and their children.

The Dangers

Agent Orange is a mixture of two active chemicals. When they're combined, an unwanted byproduct -- a dioxin called TCDD -- is formed. The EPA calls it a carcinogen (something that causes cancer). That's where the real danger of Agent Orange lies. Dioxins are absorbed and stored in fat tissue.

With so many diseases and illnesses linked to Agent Orange, it's impossible to single out specific symptoms. The ones associated with chronic B-cell leukemia, for example are different than those tied to prostate cancer. Yet both prostate cancer and leukemia are among the illnesses that the VA believes are tied to contact with Agent Orange.

No tests are widely available to determine if you've been exposed to Agent Orange. That's why the VA presumes that all Vietnam veterans who served at a certain place in a certain time were exposed and are possibly eligible for benefits linked to disabilities.

Other cancers associated with Agent Orange include:

And among the other illnesses the VA believes are tied to Agent Orange are:

Continued

Help for Those Exposed

In 1991, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act. It allows for evaluations of studies on the health effects of the herbicide from time to time. The first evaluation was published in 1994. It's been updated about every 2 years since.

In its 2019 update, research found evidence of an association between Agent Orange exposure and high blood pressure, as well as something called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). That’s when a protein is found in your blood that could lead to certain blood cancers.

Somewhere between 2.6 and 3.8 million soldiers served in Vietnam when Agent Orange was used. It's impossible to know exactly how many were exposed. The VA says military members serving in Korea and in Thailand, and some who helped transport the deadly herbicide even if they weren't stationed in Vietnam, may have come in contact with it, too. Millions more Vietnamese civilians were directly sprayed.

If you or anyone you know has an illness that you think may be linked to Agent Orange, the VA offers free exams to eligible veterans. They can help with any compensation claims you may want to file, too.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 16, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Fallon, H. (chair), Institute of Medicine Committee to Review the Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides, Veterans and Agent Orange: Health Effects of Herbicides Used in Vietnam.

Hertz-Picciotto, I. (chair), Institute of Medicine Committee to Review the Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides, Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 11 (2018).

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "Facts About Herbicides," "Diseases related to Agent Orange," "Birth Defects in Children of Vietnam and Korea Veterans," "Chronic B-cell Leukemias and Agent Orange," "Prostate Cancer and Agent Orange," "Birth Defects in Children of Women Vietnam Veterans," "Agent Orange Registry Health Exam for Veterans."

American Cancer Society: "Known and Probable Human Carcinogens," "Agent Orange and Cancer Risk."

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: "Dioxins."

U.S. Congress (congress.gov): "H.R.556 - Agent Orange Act of 1991."

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: "Hypertension Upgraded in Latest Biennial Review of Research on Health Problems in Veterans That May Be Linked to Agent Orange Exposure During Vietnam War."

American Heart Association: "High Blood Pressure."

Mayo Clinic: "Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS)."

Stellman, J. American Journal of Public Health, published online June 2018.

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