Doctor Finds Another Possible Deadly Health Problem Associated With Agent Orange
As if veterans exposed to Agent Orange needed another thing to worry about, a new study published in the February issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery identifies a potential new connection between certain types of skin cancers and exposure to Agent Orange.
For those readers under the age of 30, Agent Orange is the rather benign sounding nickname bestowed upon one of the most carcinogenic compounds to see widespread usage in warfare. Agent Orange was conjured up in the factories of Dow Chemical and Monsanto and sold to the Department of Defense to be used as an herbicide and jungle defoliant.
North Vietnamese soldiers, dubbed Charlie by our troops, were masters at guerilla warfare and could vanish into the dense jungle. The purpose of Agent Orange was simple: Charlie hides in the bush. Kill the bush. Kill Charlie.
Its nickname derived from the orange striped barrels used to ship it into the combat theater. Experts touted it as a harmless defoliant. The government’s legal hawks were quick to coin the term Herbicidal Warfare so they were not to be engaged in Chemical Warfare.
President Kennedy signed off on Operation Ranch Hand in 1961 and the U.S. Air Force rained Agent Orange upon the Vietnamese jungles — and sadly our own troops and South Vietnamese allies and civilians. Overall about 20 million tons of the hellish substance were unleashed.
Revelations that Agent Orange was contaminated with an even more diabolical chemical, dioxin, soon came to light. For young readers not familiar with the environmental, financial and human fall-out of the Agent Orange debacle, consider it a priority to read about it soon.
Affected veterans struggled through three decades of insulting legal shenanigans by the manufacturers and governmental agencies before Congress recognized their plight. Denying the irreparable health consequences for decades the government finally in 1991 recognized a list of aliments that would qualify for compensation. Skin cancer was not among them.
Agent Orange And Skin Cancers
This new study was led by Dr. Mark Clemens of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and it analyzed medical records from the Veterans Affairs Hospital of Washington, D.C. The findings suggest that veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and the contaminant dioxin, have twice the rate of suffering invasive skin cancers. These cancers include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. So far no evidence of increased prevalence of melanoma has been proven.
The risk of skin cancer jumped to 73 percent to those veterans who actively sprayed Agent Orange. Not surprisingly, lighter skin types and those with lighter eyes demonstrated greater statistical risk. There exists a dreaded dioxin-spawned skin condition called chloracne; and these afflicted veterans show an 80 percent incident of invasive skin cancer in the study.
As early as the mid 1980s several journals suggested this Agent Orange and skin cancer association, but it has been largely ignored. Clemens reportedly initiated this study after personally witnessing the association first hand in his clinic.
Unfortunately the study’s findings are far from conclusive despite the dramatic sounding evidence. First of all, only 100 veterans enrolled in the Agent Orange registry were studied. That is an exceeding small sample size to extrapolate to the estimated 3 million Americans who served in the 1960s and 1970s Vietnam War. It is also a small sample for any generalization of those estimated 40,000-plus veterans enrolled in the Agent Orange registry. And since the 100 patients came directly from the registry, the study does not present any comparison to those veterans not exposed to Agent Orange.
Still, Clemens and his colleagues have raised some important data that other groups will surely expound upon. The VA has the most developed electronic medical record in the country and it is rich for data mining. Proving or disproving this association on a larger scale should not be too difficult and I expect our veterans will have a definitive answer on this soon. Institutional attitudes in the VA have changed for the better in the past few decades and hopefully this data will be made available to researchers.
The sad tale of Agent Orange is one of governmental and industrial hubris, greed and bureaucratic inertia. It is incredible to consider that 50 years later we are still learning of its long-term effects on the human body. The financial treasure we spend on veteran disabilities dwarfs the actually costs of “boots on the ground” operations. So the next time a politician quotes us the financial cost of invading some far away land, keep in mind they have no idea the long-term health ramifications and real costs to the country and to the soldiers.