Army veteran William Penner used to jokingly call the thick yellow crust that crept across his young son Matthew’s scalp “Agent Orange” after the toxic defoliant sprayed on him in Vietnam before the boy was born. The joke turned sour a few years ago, when Matthew, now 43, was diagnosed with a host of serious illnesses, including heart disease, fibromyalgia and arthritis.
Similar worries struck vet Mike Blackledge when staffers at a local Veterans Affairs hospital suggested his children’s diseases could be linked to his time in Vietnam. His son has inflammatory bowel disease so advanced he wears a pouch to collect his waste, and his youngest daughter has neuropathy, spinal problems and gastrointestinal issues. His oldest daughter — the one born before he went to fight in Vietnam — is fine.
They, like thousands of others, are grappling with a chilling prospect: Could Agent Orange, the herbicide linked to health problems in Vietnam veterans, have also harmed their children?
For decades, the Department of Veterans Affairs has collected — and ignored — reams of information that could have helped answer that question, an investigation by ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot has found.
Its medical staff has physically examined more than 668,000 Vietnam veterans possibly exposed to Agent Orange, documenting health conditions and noting when and where they served. For at least 34 years, the agency also has asked questions about their children’s birth defects, before and after the war.
But the birth defect data had never received scrutiny by the VA or anyone else until this year, when ProPublica, working with The Virginian-Pilot, obtained it after submitting a detailed plan describing how it would be used and agreeing to protect patients’ identities.
The analysis that followed was revealing: The odds of having a child born with birth defects during or after the war were more than a third higher for veterans who say they handled, sprayed or were directly sprayed with Agent Orange than for veterans who say they weren’t exposed or weren’t sure. The analysis controlled for such variables as age and health status.
The data has some caveats. The VA, for example, had no way of verifying the vets’ Agent Orange exposure and did not independently confirm information about their children’s birth defects. Even so, experts said the results should prompt the VA to take the issue seriously.
“It’s like a sign that says ‘Dig Here’ and they’re not digging,” said Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health at Boston University and co-editor-in-chief of the online journal Environmental Health, after reviewing ProPublica’s findings. “It raises questions about whether they want to know the answer or are just hoping the problem will naturally go away as the veterans die off.”