Agent Orange and Cancer

Decades after the Vietnam War, the physical tolls of active duty still linger for veterans. Besides the injuries we commonly associate with war, including scarring, missing limbs, and post-traumatic stress disorder, those who served in Vietnam now face another remnant of the era: prostate cancer.

New research published in the journal Cancer adds to a growing body of evidence that soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War have an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Researchers sought to determine whether exposure to this toxic chemical contributes to the development of lethal forms of prostate cancer in particular.

"This is an important distinction, as the majority of prostate cancer cases are non-lethal and thus do not necessarily require detection or therapy,” said study author Dr. Mark Garzotto of the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center and Oregon Health & Science University.

Vietnam veterans do have a greater risk of developing lethal prostate cancer, and while this is far from comforting for veterans who have already endured so much, Garzotto's research encourages more early screening and detection.

A Brief History of Agent Orange

Agent Orange, a combination of Herbicide Orange and Agent LNX, was deployed in the U.S. military’s chemical warfare program Operation Ranch Hand during the Vietnam War.

Spraying the forests of South Vietnam was intended to flush out members of the Viet Cong, but many American soldiers were also exposed to the chemical, which was contaminated with the carcinogen TCDD during the manufacturing process. TCDD is in a class of chemicals called dioxins and is considered extremely dangerous.

Health Risks for Veterans

Garzotto used data from the Veterans Affairs electronic medical records system. Of the 2,720 veterans who underwent a biopsy, prostate cancer was diagnosed in 32.9 percent of them and 16.9 percent had high grade, or lethal, prostate cancer. Agent Orange exposure was associated with a 52 percent greater overall risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer. 

Garzotto’s study is far from the only research linking Agent Orange to prostate cancer. Another study published in Cancer showed similar results, with twice as many men who were exposed to Agent Orange later diagnosed with prostate cancer. A 2009 study in BJU International concluded that Agent Orange exposure may lead to more aggressive prostate cancer in some men.

There are a number of other health risks also associated with Agent Orange exposure, including congenital amputation, soft tissue sarcoma, Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

What Does This Mean for Vietnam Vets?

The good news for Vietnam veterans is that, armed with this knowledge, researchers can develop better systems for prostate cancer detection so that vets can get treatment as quickly as possible.

Regardless of exposure to Agent Orange, prostate cancer remains a major health concern for men. According to the study authors, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among men in the U.S. and is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men.

Garzotto’s study also has political and moral implications for future generations. The repercussions of war are long-lasting and affect everyone involved.

"[The findings] also should raise awareness about potential harms of chemical contaminants in biologic agents used in warfare and the risks associated with waste handling and other chemical processes that generate dioxin or dioxin-related compounds," Garzotto said.

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