Disturbing Long-Term Health Impacts From The Vietnam War

Mental Health Conditions Like Depression and Anxiety Plague Veterans Vietnam War veterans deal with mental and physical health repercussions of their time in combat. Veterans experience… Aisha Abdullah - April 20, 2023
Council On Foreign Relations.

Mental Health Conditions Like Depression and Anxiety Plague Veterans

Vietnam War veterans deal with mental and physical health repercussions of their time in combat. Veterans experience mental health issues at rates far higher than the general population. As many as one in five vets suffer from PTSD, which is often associated with other mental illnesses. Depression rates among veterans are 5 times higher than in civilians. These mental health issues may be directly related to vets’ experiences during combat or a result of managing chronic physical health issues related to combat. Veteran suicide rates are also 1.5 times higher than civilian rates. A recent study found that Vietnam veterans have around 3 to 5 times the rate of psychological distress as non-veterans, with Black and Hispanic veterans reporting the highest rates of PTSD and depression.

Exposure to Agent Orange is Believed to Increase Diabetes Risk

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body either doesn’t produce enough of or respond to the hormone insulin, which helps the body process sugar (glucose) into insulin. Without enough insulin, the amount of glucose in the blood will rise to a dangerous level. In the late 1990s, research demonstrated a potential link between Agent Orange exposure and type 2 diabetes. The study found that Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to high levels of the chemical were nearly 3 times more likely to develop diabetes than veterans who hadn’t been exposed. Moreover, the high-exposure vets started showing symptoms of the disease younger age. Since then, additional research has confirmed the finding that Vietnam War veterans are at higher type 2 diabetes risk.

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Liver Disease May Also Be Linked to Agent Orange

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, two diseases that affect the liver are among the 19 serious illnesses directly linked to Agent Orange exposure: Hodkin’s disease and porphyria cutanea tarda. Hodkin’s disease (also called Hodkin’s lymphoma) is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which produces white blood cells that protect the body against infections and disease. Lymph tissue is present in the lymph nodes, bone marrow, liver, and spleen. Hodkin’s disease that spreads to liver lymph tissue can cause liver damage. Porphyria cutanea tarda is a rare disease that causes severe blistering of the skin when exposed to sunlight. The condition results from liver dysfunction. More recently, a study found that many Vietnam vets were exposed to tiny parasites called liver flukes, which can cause liver disease and bile duct cancer decades after infection.

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Agent Orange Exposure Increased Birth Defect Risks

Nearly 50 years after the end of the war, the children of its survivors still live with the consequences. Vietnamese citizens and Vietnam War vets reported increased instances of miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects in infants born to parents who were exposed to Agent Orange. But it would be decades before the U.S. government officially recognized that at least one birth defect, spina bifida, is associated with exposure to the chemical. Spina bifida is a condition in which the spinal cord does not develop properly. It may cause severe complications, including spine and skeletal abnormalities and paralysis. One analysis found that the risk of birth defects in babies born to vets exposed to Agent Orange was one-third higher than that for vets not exposed. Despite some evidence linking dioxin limb abnormalities and cleft palates, the U.S. does not recognize these as being associated with the chemical.

International Business Times.

Agent Orange May Increase the Risk of Prostate and Other Cancers

Several cancers have been linked to Agent Orange exposure, including prostate cancer, bladder cancer, and soft tissue sarcoma. Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in men, and there is evidence that troops exposed to the herbicide are at increased for the disease. The prostate is a small gland that produces fluid that promotes sperm health. Bladder cancer was only acknowledged as a potential side effect of Agent Orange less than two years ago, after years of pushing from veterans and advocacy groups. Soft tissue sarcomas are rare cancers that affect the body’s soft tissues, including muscles, fat, blood vessels, and tendons. There are over 50 types of soft tissue sarcomas that can occur anywhere in the body. Exposure to dioxin and other herbicides may increase the risk of certain soft tissue sarcomas.

Military Times.

Certain Types of Blood Cancers Have Been Linked to Agent Orange

The U.S. government recognizes a link between Agent Orange exposure and at least four distinct blood cancers, including some leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodkin’s lymphoma. Chronic B-cell leukemia is a type of cancer that affects B cells, immune cells that produce antibodies to fight off infections. This cancer weakens the immune system and increases susceptibility to infections and other illnesses. Multiple myeloma affects the plasma, which is the liquid part of the blood. Plasma cells are produced in the bone marrow. In people with multiple myeloma, affected plasma cells accumulate in the bone marrow, pushing out healthy immune blood cells and forming multiple tumors in the bones. Like Hodkin’s disease, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer that affects the lymphatic system. But the disease affects different types of white blood cells, and Non-Hodkin’s is typically more difficult to treat.

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Sleep Disorders Like Insomnia Are Common Among Vietnam Vets

Sleep problems are common among active duty military and veterans. Other health conditions associated with combat can worsen sleep symptoms. For example, over 90 percent of Vietnam War veterans with PTSD reported experiencing insomnia. People who are successfully treated for PTSD may suffer from lingering sleep issues. Difficulty falling or staying asleep can lead to long-term negative health impacts and worsening overall well-being. Obstructive sleep apnea is also more prevalent in vets with PTSD than in the civilian population or vets without PTSD. This condition is caused by an interruption in breathing when the airway is temporarily blocked, which results in snoring. Sleep apnea is associated with difficulty sleeping, fatigue, moodiness, and high blood pressure. In addition, the condition is a risk factor for other serious diseases, including cardiovascular disease.

Technology Networks.

Nerve Damage From Agent Orange Can Cause Numbness and Tingling

Peripheral neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the extremities. The peripheral nervous system is made up of nerves that extend out from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. These nerves carry communications between every part of the body and the brain, including pain and heat sensations. In people with peripheral neuropathy, nerve damage interrupts this communication, causing touch or heat sensitivity, difficulty maintaining balance, and muscle weakness. Peripheral neuropathy has been linked to exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange for about a decade. The condition is commonly associated with diabetes but can occur separately from it.


Agent Orange Has Been Linked to Hormonal Disruptions

In 2021, hypothyroidism was added to the list of presumptive diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure that can receive veteran disability benefits. The addition was the latest in the chemical’s enduring legacy of hormone disruption that still affects babies born in Vietnam. Agent Orange exposure is known to cause hormonal imbalances, specifically in the hormone DHEA, which supports the normal production of sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. As recently as 2017, babies born in parts of Vietnam that were most heavily contaminated with the herbicide have much higher DHEA levels than normal. Veterans and civilians directly exposed to Agent Orange have an increased risk of endocrine diseases, which affect hormone-producing glands like the pancreas and thyroid. For example, Vietnam veterans are at higher risk of a rare thyroid condition called Graves’ disease, which causes anxiety, tremors, weight fluctuations, and bulging, irritated eyes.

Parkinsons Foundation.

Research Suggests Parkinson’s Disease May Be Linked to Agent Orange

Like hypothyroidism and bladder cancer, parkinsonism (the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease) is a relatively new addition to the list of diseases presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange that receive veteran benefits. The change came more than a decade after the symptoms were found to be associated with exposure to the toxin. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition that results from the dysfunction or death of motor neurons, brain cells that control body movements. The loss of these neurons causes tremors, slow movements, muscle stiffness, and difficulty walking, speaking, and carrying out involuntary movements like blinking. Parkinson’s disease is progressive, which means it worsens over time, and there is currently no cure.

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Another Toxic Chemical Called Agent Blue Also Caused Health Issues

Although many of the long-term health impacts of the Vietnam War are related to Agent Orange, the herbicide wasn’t the only toxic chemical troops and civilians were exposed to during the war. Millions of gallons of so-called rainbow herbicides were used to wipe out crops and forests, exposing approximately 4.8 million people to the chemicals’ damaging effects. Agent Blue was another herbicide used during the Vietnam War that contained arsenic, a highly toxic chemical once commonly used as a deadly poison. Those who survive arsenic poisoning face a lifetime of health issues. Arsenic exposure is linked to skin, bladder, and lung cancers, neuropathy, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Like Agent Orange, Agent Blue remains in the soil and water of areas dusted with the chemical, ensuring its devastating effects last for generations.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Veterans’ Diseases Associated with Agent Orange

Agent Orange in Vietnam

Agent Orange and Cancer Risk

What Is Agent Orange?

15 Diseases Caused by Agent Orange Exposure

Long-Term Agent Orange Effects