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Research Links Agent Orange To Parkinson’s, Heart Disease

July 25, 2009

A report from the Institute of Medicine finds suggestive evidence that exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War can be linked to an increased chance of developing heart problems and Parkinson’s disease for Vietnam veterans.

The study, sponsored by the Veterans Affairs Department, indicated that there was a greater connection between the chemicals used and health risks to Vietnam veterans than was previously thought.

Agent Orange got its name from the color of the orange striped barrels it was shipped in. During the Vietnam War of 1962-1971, the United States military sprayed 20 millions gallons of chemical defoliants in South Vietnam as part of a defoliant program. The objective was to thin out the dense jungle foliage so that Communist forces could not find cover, while destroying the crops they needed to survive. It was also used to clear sensitive areas around base perimeters and to drive civilians into more controllable areas.

According to Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people came in contact with Agent Orange, causing 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children to be born with birth defects. Since then, American troops have also began to come forward with various health problems as researchers try to assess the total damage incurred by the chemicals.

The Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, is required by Congress to conduct a review every two years on the effects of Agent Orange exposure.

Researchers reviewed several different studies that suggest a relationship between higher exposure levels and greater incidence of the disease in order to see if there is indeed an increased chance of Vietnam veterans developing ischemic heart disease. 

Ischemic heart disease is a condition characterized by reduced blood supply to the heart, which can lead to heart attack and stroke. It is the leading cause of death among people in industrialized countries. Contributing factors include buildup of cholesterol in the arteries, age, smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

The writers of the report reviewed several studies investigating exposure to the harsh chemicals and heart disease, and many showed that higher exposure correlated with greater incidence of disease.

In the 16 studies reviewed that seemed to indicate a connection between the herbicide and heart disease and Parkinson’s, there was not enough specific research done on Parkinson’s among Vietnam veterans to make a valid conclusion.

Image Caption: A UH-1D helicopter from the 336th Aviation Company sprays a defoliation agent on a dense jungle area in the Mekong Delta. 07/26/1969/National Archives photograph.

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