A pair of lungs represented as tree branches - one is lush with leaves and the other is barren being overtaken by an orange color

Is There A Link Between Agent Orange and Lung Cancer?

Agent Orange (AO) was a mixture of herbicides used during the Vietnam War. From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of AO and other “Rainbow Herbicides” in South Vietnam and nearby areas. The goal was to remove the enemy’s food supply and concealment. But AO was contaminated by a chemical called TCDD. TCDD is the most toxic member of a family of chemicals called “dioxins.”1

After the war, many Vietnam veterans noticed illnesses possibly caused by AO exposure. We now know that AO exposure is linked to many diseases, including respiratory cancers.2,3

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides benefits to veterans who have these diseases and served in a location exposed to AO. You do not need to prove a connection between AO and the disease. The first step is to set up an AO Registry exam.4,5

Overview of Agent Orange and TCDD

The U.S. Army developed Agent Orange during World War II and started using it in Vietnam in the 1960s. AO and other color-coded herbicides were usually sprayed from C-123 aircrafts.6

AO contains chemicals that damage plants. However, it also contained TCDD, an unwanted byproduct of industrial processes. TCDD causes major health problems and is a carcinogen in humans. It easily builds up in our cells through physical contact or ingestion and changes how our cells work.1

TCDD persists in plants and animals for many years. So, the local environment has yet to recover. The U.S. is helping to clean the toxic chemical from contaminated sites.7

Diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure

The U.S. government originally did not know that AO caused negative health effects. As the war ended, researchers found high levels of TCDD in Vietnam veterans. Veterans who served on contaminated C-123 aircrafts after the war even showed exposure. Vietnam veterans then suspected their illnesses and children’s birth defects were due to AO exposure.5,8

Starting in the 1990s, the National Academy of Medicine (then called the Institute of Medicine) issued reports every 2 years on the health effects of AO. The latest report was published in 2018. It says there is evidence of a link between AO exposure and:9

The VA now calls these “presumptive diseases.” This means that they assume these diseases were caused by AO exposure for those who had contact with it. Eligible veterans can get disability compensation and healthcare if they have one of these diseases.2,5

Research on Agent Orange and lung cancer

Veterans who have lung cancer and served in an area exposed to AO are eligible to receive benefits. This is based on evidence linking AO exposure to lung cancer. Multiple studies show that U.S. veterans have a higher risk of lung cancer if they used herbicides in Vietnam. Other studies show that higher levels of TCDD in the blood increases the risk for lung cancer. And in lab animals, TCDD increases the incidence of lung tumors.9

Where can veterans and survivors find additional information?

If you think you were exposed to AO, it is good to inform your doctor. They can help you get cancer screening and monitor symptoms.

You can also request a VA Agent Orange Registry health exam. You do not need to have an illness or be enrolled in the VA health system. You just need to have served in a location exposed to AO, including:4

  • In Vietnam from 1962-1975
  • Near the Korean Demilitarized Zone from 1967-1971
  • On Thai Air Force Bases from 1962-1975
  • On C-123 airplanes from 1969-1986
  • Other locations where you tested, transported, or sprayed herbicides

This free exam can alert you to AO-related health problems. Contact your local VA environmental health coordinator to enroll.10

If you have an illness believed to be caused by AO, you may qualify for healthcare and disability compensation. You need a medical record that shows you have an AO-related illness. You also need a military record showing service in a location exposed to AO. Contact the VA for help filing a claim for these benefits.5,11

If you have an illness potentially caused by AO but not on the list of related illnesses, you can still file a claim. You will need to show evidence that the condition may be related to AO exposure and that it started or worsened because of military service.5

The VA offers benefits to spouses and dependent children of veterans who died as a result of an AO-related illness. This includes compensation and healthcare. Contact the VA Office of Survivors’ Assistance to apply for these benefits.12

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