More than four decades have passed since the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended and the last American troops left the country. Yet, for veterans of the war -- and in some cases, their next of kin -- the impact of that service on their well-being is still being determined, particularly for those exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange.
Contaminated with the chemical dioxin, millions of gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed in South Vietnam during the war as part of a defoliation program to reduce tree cover for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops and kill crops that provided food for the opposition.
In the years following the war, exposure to Agent Orange has been found to be associated with a higher risk of developing many health conditions. And veterans groups say more still needs to be done to care for veterans exposed to the herbicide, as well as their family members. At present, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes certain cancers and other health problems among a list of "presumptive diseases" -- or conditions presumed to be associated with exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service. Those range from certain luekemias, Hodgkin's disease and prostate cancer to Parkinson's disease. As noted on its website, the VA also presumes certain birth defects in children of Vietnam and Korean War veterans are associated with their parents' service. That includes spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when a baby's spine doesn't form properly and that has been linked to Agent Orange exposure. And scientists keep turning over more stones to unearth the long-term health impact.
Most recently, the focus has turned to whether Agent Orange exposure may raise veterans' risk of developing another condition that -- like with diabetes -- is quite prevalent in older Americans: high blood pressure. To take a closer look, VA researchers published a study in November in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine evaluating relative hypertension risk for aging veterans who had served in Army Chemical Corps, including those who sprayed Agent Orange by hand and from helicopters. "What the findings showed was that the highest risk for reporting hypertension was among those who stated that they were sprayers and were in Vietnam," says Aaron Schneiderman, director of epidemiology in Post-Deployment Health Services at the Veterans Health Administration, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.