Union Tribune

January 24, 2003 

Panel confirms Agent Orange-leukemia link


WASHINGTON A team of health experts from the National
Academy of Sciences has reversed itself and now accepts a link
between the herbicide Agent Orange and the development of a
common form of leukemia, prompting the Veterans Affairs
Department to announce it will extend benefits to veterans with
the illness.

A report released yesterday by an Institute of Medicine panel
said a reassessment of previous studies "revealed sufficient
evidence" of an association between exposure to Agent Orange,
which was used in massive quantities during the Vietnam War,
and CLL, or chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

VA Secretary Anthony Principi said veterans suffering from the
disease would start receiving improved benefits, such as
disability compensation and priority health-care services, in
about a year.

"It's just one more indication that service on the battlefield
exposes men and women to dangers beyond bullets, shrapnel
and missiles," said Principi, a Navy veteran of Vietnam.
"Environmental hazards are as worrisome and deadly as some of
the more common forms of battlefield injury."

The finding represents another victory for veterans who have
been seeking VA benefits for a wide variety of illnesses they
attribute to their exposure to Agent Orange.

Despite numerous complaints by Vietnam-era veterans, the VA
and the Pentagon denied for years that there were any health
problems resulting from the military's use of Agent Orange and
other potent herbicides in Southeast Asia. Most of the plant
killers were sprayed over South Vietnam and Cambodia from Air
Force transports in an extended campaign known as Operation
Ranch Hand.

In 1991, Congress directed the National Academy of Sciences to
systematically study the evidence of any connection between
veterans' illnesses and exposure to herbicides.

The resulting studies included health screening of veterans who
believed they had been exposed to Agent Orange and extensive
reviews of scientific examination of the effects of herbicides on
humans. Most of the studies were of agricultural workers who
used herbicides in the field and employees of the chemical
companies that produced them.

Based on those studies, the VA has acknowledged the probable
connection between Agent Orange exposure and higher
incidents of several forms of cancer, including soft-tissue
sarcoma, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and
chloracne, a severe skin rash.

The institute's studies also have indicated possible linkage to
some other cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

CLL, the most prevalent form of leukemia, has similar
characteristics to Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodg kin's
lymphoma. But in a study released in 2000, the institute had
found that the data from existing studies were insufficient to link
CLL to herbicide exposure.

But a review, requested by the VA, found evidence of increased
incidents of CLL among agricultural workers exposed repeatedly
to herbicides.

About 10,000 Vietnam-era veterans receive disability pay for
the illnesses linked to the herbicides, and a VA spokesman said
the agency expects to find about 500 claims for CLL a year.