More than two decades of studying Agent Orange exposure hasn’t produced a solid understanding of how the toxic herbicide has harmed Vietnam War veterans and possibly their children, according to a report released Thursday.
Additional research is long overdue, the report said, but the federal government hasn’t done it.
Those are among the conclusions of a committee of researchers that, since 1991, has been charged by Congress with reviewing all available research into the effects of Agent Orange, which the U.S. military sprayed by the millions of gallons in Vietnam to kill forests and destroy enemy cover.
Over the years, the biennial reports produced by the committee have identified numerous illnesses linked to the herbicide, in some cases leading the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend disability compensation to thousands more veterans.
But in its tenth and final Agent Orange report — with most Vietnam vets now well into their 60s or older — the committee concluded there’s still much to learn and not enough research underway, especially related to potential health consequences for the children and grandchildren of veterans who were exposed.
“Although progress has been made in understanding the health effects of exposure to the chemicals,” the committee members wrote near the end of the 1,115-page report, there are still “significant gaps in our knowledge.”
Some 2.6 million Vietnam veterans were potentially exposed to Agent Orange, which contained the chemical dioxin. Calls from veterans to extend the research committee’s work for at least a few more years have so far gone unanswered in Congress. The provision of the 1991 Agent Orange Act that established the committee expired last fall.
The panel, working under the auspices of the federal Institute of Medicine, reviewed scientific literature on Agent Orange released between October 2012 and September 2014 for its final review.
Even in their final report, the researchers cited a new study of veterans from Korea who served in Vietnam, leading them to conclude that Agent Orange exposure may be linked to bladder cancer and hypothyroidism — two conditions not currently covered by the VA. If certain conditions are linked to Agent Orange exposure, the VA assumes anyone with those conditions got them from their exposure and therefore makes them eligible for disability payments.
The decision over whether to begin compensating Vietnam veterans with those ailments rests with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald. The VA is not bound by the committee’s recommendations, a point made clear in report’s final pages. The researchers listed more than 30 past suggestions — including calls for additional government-led studies — that apparently haven’t been pursued by the VA or other agencies.