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#212 - Report Links Herbicide Exposure To Illnesses Among Vietnam Vets, 18-Dec-1990

For more than a decade Vietnam veterans have sought compensation for
illnesses they believe were caused by their wartime exposure to
herbicides, which were used heavily during the war to defoliate the
jungle, to reduce available cover for enemy troops. U.S. soldiers and
airmen who prepared, handled or sprayed the herbicides, and ground
troops who were doused, have been routinely denied compensation by the
federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) because the VA has taken
the position that there is not enough scientific evidence linking
herbicide exposure to disease.

Now an independent scientific review sponsored by the American Legion,
the Vietnam Veterans of America, and the National Veterans Legal
Services Project has concluded that there is a "significant statistical
association" between exposure to chemical herbicides and several
serious illnesses. According to the April, 1990, report of the Agent
Orange Scientific Task Force, there is "a significant statistical
association" between exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange and various
cancers (non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and soft tissue sarcomas), serious skin
disorders (chloracne), and liver disorders. The Task Force said, "The
aggregate interpretation of several sound studies showing a
statistically significant association for each of these conditions
makes this conclusion inescapable." Agent Orange was the military code
name for the chemical herbicide used most often in Vietnam to defoliate
the jungle. Agent Orange was a chlorinated phenoxy herbicide made up of
two common weed killers, 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, both of which are routinely
contaminated with dioxins during manufacture. Anyone exposed to Agent
Orange is presumed to have been exposed to dioxins.

When a scientist says there is a "significant statistical association"
between one event (such as exposure to an herbicide) and another event
(such as the onset of illness), he or she means it is very unlikely
that the two events occurred together by random chance; it is much more
likely that the two events occurred together for a reason. (What is
meant by "very unlikely" differs from study to study; often "very
unlikely" means there is less than a 5% probability that the observed
relationship occurred by random chance; sometimes "very unlikely" means
there was less than a 1% probability that the observed relationship
occurred by random chance. In each individual study, the author decides
which definition of "very unlikely" he or she will use.)

The 1990 report is based on a review of 285 different published studies
of human exposure to phenoxy herbicides and/or dioxins, all appearing
in scientific journals from 1978 onward. The 285 studies are listed on
pages 49-75 of the 1990 report; the list provides a unique resource for
anyone seeking additional information on phenoxy herbicide effects on
humans. The VA does not allow consideration of animal studies, so only
human data were evaluated for the 1990 report. However, to make the
point that animal studies are universally recognized as valid evidence
for human cancer risk, the 1990 report contains an appendix in which
various scientists and government agencies are quoted saying that
animal studies provide valid evidence for those trying to understand
human cancers in relation to chemical exposures. This appendix (pgs.
42-48 of the 1990 report) is a unique resource for citizens trying to
make the case that animal studies should be heeded in public policy
decisions involving human exposure to chemicals.

The 1990 report concludes further that three additional health effects
"are at least as likely as not" to be associated with exposure to
phenoxy herbicides: Hodgkin's disease (a cancerous enlargement of the
lymph nodes, spleen, and general lymphoid tissues, which usually
appears first in the neck), neurologic effects, and reproductive and
developmental disorders.

The observed reproductive and developmental disorders include (a) low
sperm count among Vietnam vets compared to a control group of non-
Vietnam veterans; (b) increased incidence of spontaneous abortion among
wives of Vietnam vets; (c) increased incidence of birth defects in
children of Vietnam vets, including skin defects, nerve defects, heart
defects, kidney defects, and oral clefts (cleft lip and cleft palate).

The conclusion that these illnesses are "at least as likely as not" to
occur from Agent Orange exposure is important within the VA because the
VA's rules for compensation require a finding that a disease is "as
likely as not" to occur from a chemical exposure before that disease
becomes compensable.

The report concludes further that there is "sound scientific evidence
of an association with exposure to agent orange, but the evidence does
not reach the level of formal statistical significance for the
following additional effects:" cancers of the kidney, testicles,
stomach, prostate, colon, hepatobiliary tract (liver and related
systems), brain, and blood-forming cells (leukemia); psychosocial
effects; immune system disorders; gastrointestinal ulcers; and altered
lipid metabolism (the body's ability to digest and handle fats and some

Authors of the report (the Agent Orange Scientific Task Force) are
seven prominent independent scientists and physicians: Richard W.
Clapp, Barry Commoner, John D. Constable, Samuel S. Epstein, Peter C.
Kahn, James R. Olson, and David M. Ozonoff.

This is an important report because the issue of compensation for
Vietnam vets is merely the tip of an enormous iceberg. The components
of agent orange (2,4,5-T and 2,4-D) are both still widely used in the
United States for clearing rights of way beneath power lines and along
highways; rain then carries the chemicals into water supplies. Many
homeowners use these chemicals (knowingly or not) to kill lawn
"pests" (broad-leaf plants such as crab grass and dandelions). Farmers
use them extensively for weed control. Thus exposure to these chemicals
is very widespread among the American people.

Since the 1990 report appeared (in April), the VA has reversed itself
and declared that soft tissue sarcomas and non-Hodgkin's lymphomas in
Vietnam vets are compensable. The VA's Advisory Committee on
Environmental Hazards continues to study the relationship of other
diseases to Agent Orange exposures among vets.

National Veterans Legal Services Project [2001 S Street, NW,
Washington, DC 20009-1125; phone 202/265-8305], April, 1990); 41 pages,
plus 33 pages of useful appendices; $10.00 plus $3.00 shipping.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: vietnam veterans; studies; agent orange; cancer; skin
disorders; liver disease; 2,4,5-t; 2,4-d; dioxin; herbicides; health
effects; birth defects; nervous system; heart; cancer; kidney disease;
immune system; pesticides;

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