The marriage of two herbicides chemically known as 2, 4, 5-T and 2, 4-D yielded the product that became known as Agent Orange because of the orange striping on the barrels used for shipping it. Agent Orange was a potent defoliant that was used primarily during the Vietnam War in what the military code-named “Operation Ranch Hand.” The project officially began in 1961 and continued through 1971. During the period of its use in Southeast Asia, an estimated 20,000,000 gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia. 

In the decades that followed, an ever-growing body of evidence has linked exposure to Agent Orange with a number of serious and potentially fatal diseases. The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) first officially recognized one of those health conditions as type 2 diabetes in 2002. Since then, many more conditions have been added to the list.  

About 9 million military personnel served on active duty during the Vietnam era. At least 2.6 million were potentially exposed to Agent Orange based on their location of service and assigned duties. Since 2002, the VBA estimates that more than 650,000 veterans have been granted benefits because of their Agent Orange exposure. It was not until a 1991 law was passed acknowledging the nature of this chemical agent that Vietnam veterans were recognized as being at risk for health issues as a result of their exposure. Since then, the U.S. government has spent more than $21 billion on compensation for Vietnam era veterans. 

Further studies have resulted in the discovery of potential health problems in children of these veterans. The VA recognizes a limited number of birth defects in children of Vietnam veterans, including spina bifida and 18 other health conditions that occur in children of female veterans.

Healthcare providers should, in the course of gathering thorough health and social histories from patients, determine their veteran status and years and areas of service. While no primary care provider is likely to be able to positively conclude a correlation of current illness with historic Agent Orange exposure, direction should be offered to the patient regarding where to find more information about this issue. Every veteran should know that:

  • Agent Orange was an herbicide and defoliant used in Vietnam that may potentially cause serious disease later in life.
  • Vietnam era veterans may wish to participate in an Agent Orange Registry health exam. This exam is free and does not require enrollment in VA health care. 
  • The VA recognizes and offers support for the children of all veterans affected by Agent Orange who have birth defects. (217-6) 

Sherril Sego, FNP-C, DNP, is an independent consultant in Kansas City, Mo.


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