Exposure to the defoliant herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War may be raising blood pressure levels for the aging veterans of that conflict. This was reported by a panel of the U.S. Institute of Medicine.
Two recent studies of Vietnam veterans who handled Agent Orange and other defoliants indicated that these veterans have higher rates of high blood pressure.
This report is the first step in a process used by the government to determine which health problems are connected to war service and therefore qualified for veteran's health benefits.
If the government decides that Agent Orange is a cause of high blood pressure, it could entitle up to an estimated 3 million Vietnam veterans to health care benefits they did not previously have.
The IOM, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has been studying the effects of the herbicide Agent Orange on veterans since the early 1990s.
"In two new studies, Vietnam veterans with the highest exposure to herbicides exhibited distinct increases in the prevalence of hypertension; the prevalence of heart disease was also increased," the report found, although the IOM committee stopped short of suggesting that wartime exposure to Agent Orange is currently raising veterans' risk of ischemic heart disease.
The panel, which reviewed about 350 epidemiological and animal studies, also pointed to evidence linking those chemicals to AL amyloidosis, a rare disease in which protein builds up around organs. Those findings add both conditions to a list of Agent Orange-linked health problems that already includes several rare cancers, type II diabetes and birth defects in the children of the veterans exposed.
A new environmental study and an earlier study of workers in an herbicide manufacturing plant did not find evidence of an association between herbicide or dioxin exposure and increased high blood pressure.
Because of the inconsistent results the Institute said the evidence is suggestive of, but insufficient to conclude with certainty, that exposure to the herbicide leads to high blood pressure.
"It's important to know what things might be associated with Agent Orange exposure, given the number of people exposed. Many of them are in their 60s now, late 50s," panel member Richard Fenske of the University of Washington. Too many veterans are still battling the Veterans Administration for needed coverage.
U.S. forces used Agent Orange to clear jungle growth across Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. The herbicide and others like it contained contaminants such as dioxins, which are known to have a variety of health affects in animals and humans.
The committee concluded Friday that there is now limited or suggestive evidence of an association between Agent Orange and high blood pressure. In two new studies, Vietnam veterans with the highest exposure to herbicides exhibited distinct increases in the prevalence of hypertension, the report states.
Hypertension is risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems.
With American troops fighting now on a new front, Phil Kraft, executive director of the Darien, Conn.-based National Veterans Services Fund , hopes tomorrow's veterans will be wiser. One big problem for veterans from the Vietnam War is that they have no blood or other samples to demonstrate their baseline level of health before they went off to fight. That means it is often tough to prove that wartime exposures are the cause of an unhealthy change in their genetics or tissue toxicity levels.