The Human Health Impact of Agent Orange
Around 2.7 million Americans served in the armed forces in Vietnam between 1960 and 1973. About 514,000 Americans served in the Blue Water Navy off the coast of Vietnam, while close to 300,000 served elsewhere in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand and more still at the DMZ of Korea.
Shortly after returning home, U.S. veterans began to experience ill health. They also witnessed an unusually high incidence of their children born with hydrocephaly, anencephaly, spina bifida, neural tube defects, club foot, cleft palate, missing extremities, fused digits, heart defects, blindness and many other conditions.
They began attributing these negative health conditions to their exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides, used during the war. Veterans were filing claims as early as 1977 to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for disability payments and health care, but their claims were denied as they had to prove that their conditions began when they were in service or within one year of their discharge.
When the VA did not respond to their concerns, many veterans took part in a class action lawsuit against the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange and other herbicides used in the war. After the suit was settled out of court, political pressure pushed U.S. Congress to pass the Agent Orange Act in 1991, granting the VA the authority to declare certain conditions “presumptive,” allowing many veterans who served in Vietnam eligible for treatment and compensation.
Originally, Veterans were only presumed to be exposed if they could prove they served in Vietnam and in the DMZ of Korea between September 1, 1967, and August 31, 1971. After a report was published in 2015 on possible exposure to Agent Orange on C-123’s used during the Ranch Hand Program, Air Force Reserve pilots who flew these C-123s from 1969 to 1986 were presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange. This presumption of exposure was expanded again in 2019 to those who served in Blue Water Navy, within 12 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam. Finally in 2022, the PACT Act expanded presumption of exposure to veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange elsewhere during the era of the war in Vietnam, this includes veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, and Johnston Island where Dioxin-contaminated herbicides were believed to have been used or stored.
Since 1991, the VA list of “presumptive” conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange has grown to include 19 classes of cancers and illnesses. Veterans today can apply to the VA for disability compensation, health benefits. Their caregivers may also qualify for support. The spouses of veterans who have passed away from their service connected to an Agent Orange condition may also qualify for survivor benefits from the VA. But while some progress has been made to recognize the plight of veterans, the concerns of many children of veterans who live with a disability have not been completely addressed.
Epidemiological studies, reviewed by the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, found that there was no increased rate of birth defects, except for spina bifida, among children of male veterans. Currently, spina bifida is the only condition that qualifies for VA benefits in the children of male veterans.
Meanwhile, VA studies of women veterans who served in Vietnam (of which there were only about 8,000) found that there were significantly increased rates of birth defects. The VA does not attribute these rates to Agent Orange exposure, only to service in Vietnam. Children of female veterans are eligible for VA benefits if they have certain types of birth defects or if they can prove their birth defect has no known cause, such as Down’s syndrome, and that they have no family history.
Today, most children of Vietnam veterans are adults and have their own families. Many suspect that their illnesses, poor health, or learning disabilities, are related to their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange. Little is known about what future impact their exposure will have on their own children and grandchildren. In 2012, the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance was formed by the children of veterans to better advocate for their health concerns, as well as to support each other.
“It wasn’t my war.”
– Mary Beth Hoffman, 41, born with a deformed left hip,
Chicago Tribune, 2009.
The second generation grows up.. Photo: James Nachtwey
By Fred Wilcox. “I died in Vietnam, but I didn’t even know it,” said a young Vietnam vet on the Today Show one morning in 1978, shocking viewers across the country.