Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#73 - Study Of Dioxin-Exposed Humans Reveals Cancer, Birth Defects, Liver And Cardiovascular Damage, 17-Apr-1988

A new study of Vietnam veterans, conducted by Air Force physicians,
links dioxin exposure to increases in cancer, birth defects,
psychological damage, liver damage, cardiovascular deterioration, and
degeneration of the endocrine system. The new work stops short of
saying dioxin exposures CAUSED the observable health damage among
dioxin-exposed vets, but it explicitly reverses the conclusions of a
1984 Air Force study which said dioxin exposures had been shown to be

The study is continuing, and will begin using sensitive new blood tests
to determine past exposures to dioxin; future study may be able to pin
down, or rule out, direct causal effects. In the meantime, advocates of
mass burn incinerators and other dioxinproducing facilities can no
longer claim lack of evidence that dioxin harms humans. There is now
tangible cause for concern about serious effects of dioxin on humans.

The new work is part of the Air Force's ongoing study of Vietnam
veterans who participated in Operation Ranch Hand, which was a military
program spraying herbicides on the jungles of Vietnam from 1961 to
1972, to defoliate and thus eradicate Viet Cong hiding places. In
manufacture, the herbicides (Agents Orange, Pink, Green and Purple)
were contaminated with dioxin (33 ppm to 66 ppm [parts per million]).

The study compares two groups of Vietnam veterans--one group of 1045
Ranch Hands who definitely had dioxin exposures and another group of
773 veterans not known to have been exposed to dioxin. In addition,
2708 wives and former wives of veterans in the two groups participated
in the study.

The study team first reviewed more than 400 published articles on the
effects of dioxin on animals and humans; from this they derived a
profile of 190 different health effects that might be expected to be
related to dioxin exposure. They examined the 1818 study participants
for these 190 health effects.


The study found that 4.59% of the Ranch Hands have some kind of cancer,
compared to 2.33% of the unexposed group. Thus the overall risk of
cancer among the dioxin-exposed group is doubled (risk increased by a
factor of 1.97). The greatest risk increase is for skin cancers (where
the risk is increased by a factor of 2.6), whereas the risk of
"systemic cancers" (non-skin cancers) is increased by a factor of 1.2;
in other words, the dioxin-exposed group has a 20% greater chance of
getting a non-skin cancer.

Birth Defects

Analyzing for birth defects, the study looked at children born before
the Vietnam experience and children born after Vietnam. Prior to
Vietnam, the dioxin-exposed group had born 85% as many children with
birth defects as the non-exposed group; after Vietnam, the exposed
group bore 139% as many children with birth defects. The earlier Air
Force study had said birth defects among dioxin-exposed families were
limited to "minor skin lesions" but the new study reverses that
conclusion; 32 children with severe defects were born to families in
the exposed group, vs. 18 in the nonexposed group. The total number of
birth defects in the two groups was: 80 with defects out of 917 total
births in the exposed group vs. 48 with defects out of 744 total births
in the non-exposed group.

Psychological Damage

Psychological testing revealed significant increases in fatigue, anger,
anxiety, and isolation among the dioxin-exposed group compared to the
non-exposed group.

Liver Functions

The new study looked at nine chemical measures of liver function and in
three categories the dioxin-exposed group showed reduced liver
functions, compared to the non-exposed group. In addition, among the
exposed group, 16 showed enlarged livers, vs. six among the non-exposed
group. Furthermore, 13 among the exposed group had a verifiable medical
history of liver disorder other than hepatitis, jaundice, or cirrhosis,
vs. only two with such histories among the non-exposed group.

Cardiovascular system

Heart disease rates and heart attack rates did not differ among the two
groups. However, during physical examination, 10 different heart pulse
measurements were taken in the extremities (e.g., the ankle), and
statistically significant abnormalities were found in one or more
pulses in 12.8% of the exposed group vs. 9.4% of the nonexposed group.
Abnormal pulses in the extremities are evidence of blood circulation

Endocrine system

The endocrine system is a body control system composed of a group of
glands that maintain a stable internal environment by producing
chemical regulatory substances called hormones. Glands that participate
in the endocrine system include the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid and
adrenal glands, as well as the pancreas, ovaries and testicles. The new
study looked at five chemical measures of endocrine system functions.
In three of the five measures, the dioxin-exposed group showed abnormal
functioning of the endocrine system, compared to the non-exposed group.
Functioning of the endocrine system reduces with age, but the new study
showed that, among the dioxin exposed group, functioning of the
endocrine system is being reduced much faster than among the non-
exposed group.

Thus the new study shows that, in six out of 11 areas of suspected
dioxin effects, exposed Vietnam veterans have health problems in
greater proportion than the comparison group.

The RANCH HAND STUDY (formally known as the Air Force Health Study
[AFHS]) began in 1979 and is continuing. The most recent publication,
reviewed above, is: Richard A. Albanese, UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
MARCH 1984 -FEBRUARY 1988 (United States Air Force: Brooks Air Force
Base, TX, Feb., 1988). The study is 34 pages long; it is available from
Dr. Albanese, USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Human Systems Division
(AFSC), Brooks Air Force Base, TX 78235-5301; phone (512) 536-3884. Our
thanks to Laura Petrou, legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Thomas
Daschle (South Dakota) who made the study available to us. Ms. Petrou
can be reached at (202) 224-2321.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: dioxin; agent orange; vietnam war; military; vietnam
veterans; cancer; birth defects; liver disease; cardiovascular disease;
endocrine system; studies; findings; health statistics; disease
statistics; herbicides; skin cancer; developmental disorders; air force
health study; richard albanese; laura petrou;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (19)