Agent Orange and Birth Defects
By Betty Mekdeci,
Executive Director Birth Defect Research for Children
During the Vietnam War, the United States government sprayed over 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, a combination of the defoliants 2-45T and 2-4D and the contaminant dioxin. Since their return from Vietnam, many thousands of veterans have reported that their health has been affected by exposure to Agent Orange and that their children have been born with birth defects and other disabilities.
In 1996, a committee of the National Academy of Science found sufficient evidence of an association between herbicide exposure and several serious health conditions in veterans and spina bifida in the children of Vietnam veterans.
The committee did not find sufficient evidence, however, to decide whether a number of other health problems including reproductive disorders and birth defects other than spina bifida could be attributed to Agent Orange exposure.
Some studies have shown an association between Agent Orange exposure and birth defects in multiple body systems.
An Australian study found patterns of malformation and illness in veterans’ children involving the central nervous, skeletal and cardiovascular systems.
Several studies have suggested an association between paternal herbicide exposure and an increased risk of spina bifida including the Center for Disease Control’s Vietnam Experience Study, CDC’s Birth Defects Study and the Ranch Hand study of Air Force personnel who participated in the herbicide spraying program. The VA has established a payment program for Vietnam veterans’ children who have spina bifida. A more recent study has also found that female veterans who served in Vietnam have increases in children born with birth defects and payment programs have been set up for some of these children.
No study, however, has recorded all the different kinds of birth defects reported by the 65,000 Vietnam veterans who reported reproductive problems to the court during the Agent Orange litigation.
In 1986, Birth Defect Research for Children (BDRC) working with the New Jersey Agent Orange Commission collaborated on a national project to collect these data through BDRC’s National Birth Defect Registry.
The project has been supported by grants from the American Legion, DAV, the Vietnam Veterans’ Assistance Fund and the state of New Jersey.
The National Birth Defect Registry currently has collected data on over 2,000 cases of children with birth defects or disabilities reported by Vietnam veteran families.
Data from the registry have been presented to the National Academy of Science committee, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. A pattern of disabilities has been found that may relate to damage to the developing immune system.
Does Agent Orange Attack the Immune System?
In April 1995, BDRC presented data on the children of 1600 Vietnam veterans to the National Academy of Science Committee reviewing the health effects of Agent Orange and its contaminant dioxin. BDRC’s data from the National Birth Defect Registry raised the possibility that veterans’ children were suffering from a pattern of disabilities caused by impaired immune systems. This pattern included increases in chronic infections and allergies; chronic skin disorders, learning and attention problems, emotional/behavioral difficulties; endocrine problems (growth, thyroid), tumors, cysts, cancer and other symptoms of immune dysfunction.
In 1995, the EPA released a 2000-page report on the reassessment of the health effects from exposure to dioxin. The EPA found that the immune system and the reproductive system are the most sensitive to the effects of dioxin. "Postnatal functional alterations involving learning behavior and the developing reproductive system appear to be the developmental events most sensitive to perinatal dioxin exposure," according to the report.
Prenatal exposure to dioxin also causes underdevelopment of the thymus. This can cause suppression of immune function through alteration of T-cells. Dioxin may also cause cancer through suppression of immune function or
promoting the cancerous effects of other compounds. Even low-level exposure to dioxin can result in increased bacterial, viral, parasitic and neoplastic disease. The report adds "the human embryo may be very susceptible to the long-term impairment of immune function from in utero effects of TCDD on developing immune tissue."
In addition, dioxin can target ectodermal cells in the developing embryo. These are the cells that form the skin, mucous membranes, teeth and nails. Children in Taiwan who were exposed to dioxin before birth have problems
with skin pigmentation and the growth of hair, teeth and nails. Like the veterans children in the registry the Taiwanese children also have impaired intellectual and psycho-motor development.
These studies add support to the National Birth Defect Registry findings of increases in learning, attention, immune and endrocrine problems in Vietnam veterans’ children. Data collection continues through the National Birth Defect Registry which is now an on-line project that can be accessed through www.birthdefects.org .
Birth Defect Research for Children