July 27, 2007 -- In a report that could affect millions of veterans, an expert panel concluded for the first time Friday that the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange may be linked to hypertension in former soldiers.
The report, issued by the Institute of Medicine, is only the first step in a process used by the government to determine which health problems are connected to war service and therefore qualified for veterans’ health benefits.
Millions of Vets
Several illnesses, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, have been linked to Agent Orange exposures and are covered by veterans’ benefits. But hypertension, also called high blood pressure, is by far the most common of any health condition ever considered for benefits.
“It is a big deal,” says Rick Weidman, policy director for the Vietnam Veterans of America, who served as a medic in the Vietnam War in 1969.
Nearly one-third of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, a figure that translates to roughly 72 million Americans.
U.S. forces used Agent Orange to clear jungle growth across Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. The herbicide and others like it contained contaminants such as dioxins, which are known to have a variety of health affects in animals and humans.
The committee concluded Friday that there is now “limited or suggestive evidence of an association” between Agent Orange and high blood pressure. “In two new studies, Vietnam veterans with the highest exposure to herbicides exhibited distinct increases in the prevalence of hypertension,” the report states.
The law requires the government to now determine whether or not high blood pressure will be covered as a veterans health benefit.
“We’ll see if the secretary [of Veterans Affairs] follows through,” Weidman says.
A final determination is due in four months, says Jim Benson, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman.
“The scientific experts are going to review it carefully,” he says.
Hypertension has many causes, including diet, obesity, and genetic factors. But because hypertension is so common, it would be nearly impossible to determine whether chemical exposure was the culprit in any one veteran.
“I think it would be very difficult to isolate any one factor in any individual,” John Stegeman, PhD, the IOM panel’s chairman, tells WebMD.