Agent Orange is linked to diabetes in veterans

Air Force researchers report statistical evidence linking Vietnam exposure

March 30, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Air Force researchers said yesterday that they have found the strongest evidence to date linking exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange with diabetes among Vietnam veterans.

The link is a statistical one, and there is no evidence of a biological connection. That will be sought in further studies, including one by the National Academy of Sciences, a research arm of the federal government.

If a direct link is found to Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the Vietnam War to destroy jungle cover and crops, the Department of Veterans Affairs would decide whether to compensate afflicted veterans, officials said.

"This report includes the strongest evidence to date that exposure to Agent Orange is associated with adult-onset diabetes," said Joel Michalek, lead investigator in the study, noting that the Air Force found a connection in 1991 and has been refining its work since then.

The study compared 1,000 Air Force pilots and ground crews who took part in Operation Ranch Hand, which dropped Agent Orange from 1962 to 1971, with a control group of 1,300 Air Force personnel who served in Vietnam but did not take part in the operation.

Among those involved in Ranch Hand, there were 47 percent more diabetes cases for those with the highest levels of dioxin, a component of Agent Orange that has been linked to health effects in laboratory animals.

The Air Force study did not provide the number who became ill.

As a group, veterans from Ranch Hand experienced a 26 percent increase in heart disease, but heart disease did not increase in those with higher dioxin levels. Two measures of heart disease -- high blood pressure and prior heart attacks -- tended to increase with higher dioxin levels, researchers found. The study found that Air Force ground crews who loaded the Agent Orange had the highest levels of dioxin.

The latest findings in the 22-year-old study, which will continue through 2006, found no evidence that Agent Orange is related to cancer, Michalek said, although researchers will continue to look into that possibility.

About 1,300 Air Force personnel took part in Ranch Hand, which dropped 11 million gallons of Agent Orange across Vietnam. The name comes from the orange-striped barrels used to store the herbicide.

Since the 1970s, Vietnam veterans have complained of illnesses they believe are linked to Agent Orange. The Air Force study began in 1978. That year, the Department of Veterans Affairs began an examination program for veterans with concerns about Agent Orange. By last December, about 300,000 Vietnam veterans had been examined.

Beginning in 1981, the Department of Veterans Affairs offered priority medical care to Vietnam veterans with health problems that might have resulted from exposure to Agent Orange. Veterans with any of 10 diseases presumed to be linked to Agent Orange -- among them Hodgkin's disease and prostate cancer -- receive monthly compensation even though no firm link has been established between Agent Orange and those diseases.

Money, health care and vocational rehabilitation are provided to children of Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange who have spina bifida, a congenital birth defect of the spine.

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