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Signs & Symptoms of Agent Orange Contamination

By Don Amerman ; Updated July 27, 2017

Agent Orange, the nickname applied to a herbicide/defoliant used widely during the Vietnam War, has produced serious symptoms and disease among the many armed services personnel who were exposed to it. Decades after the end of the war, the herbicide’s toxic effects are still being felt and debated.

What It Is

Agent Orange, so named for the color of the barrels in which it was stored, was a broad-leaf defoliant used by the United States to clear the jungle canopy covering key roads and waterways in Vietnam and thus facilitate aerial surveillance and attack. According to Amanda Gardner, a reporter for HealthDay News, the herbicide was composed of “compounds known to be contaminated with a type of dioxin—tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD)—during manufacture.”

VA-Recognized Diseases

The U.S. federal government was slow to acknowledge the link between Agent Orange and the symptoms and diseases that service personnel claimed that it had caused. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today acknowledges that Vietnam veterans are entitled to disability benefits if they suffer from symptoms associated with 11 diseases or conditions. These include chloracne; chronic lymphocytic leukemia; type 2 diabetes; Hodgkin’s disease; multiple myeloma; non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; peripheral neuropathy, both acute and sub-acute; porphyria cutanea tarda; prostate cancer; respiratory (lung, trachea, bronchi or larynx) cancer; and soft-tissue sarcoma, acute. The VA also provides benefits for Vietnam veterans’ children who are born with spinal bifida, a birth defect.

Symptoms of Parkinson's, Heart Disease

A 2008 report from the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies based in Washington, D.C., said it had found “suggestive but limited” evidence of a link between Agent Orange exposure and increased risk of heart disease and Parkinson’s. The symptoms of heart disease include shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, nausea and sweating. Parkinson’s symptoms include tremor, motor difficulties, muscle rigidity and impairment of balance and posture. The institute’s findings have not yet been reflected in a broadening of the VA’s disability criteria.

GI and Urinary Symptoms

For decades veterans of the Vietnam War have complained of scores of other symptoms not specifically addressed in VA policies, although the department does authorize free physical exams for anyone who feels he may be suffering from an Agent Orange-related disorder. The symptoms of Agent Orange syndrome include gastrointestinal and genitourinary complaints. GI symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, gastric ulcer, jaundice, constipation and diarrhea, while those in the genitourinary category are kidney pain and stones, a burning sensation when urinating, bloody urine and bladder discomfort.

Neurological and Psychiatric Symptoms

Large numbers of Vietnam veterans blame their exposure to Agent Orange for a wide range of neurological and psychiatric problems. Neurological complaints include numbness, tingling, dizziness, headaches, lethargy, lack of coordination, twitching and fidgeting. Widely reported psychiatric problems are personality change, violent tendencies, thoughts of suicide, profound depression, manic episodes and inexplicable anger and irritability.

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