According to the National Institute of Medicine, which is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, recently released data indicates an increased risk of developing chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in Vietnam Veterans who were involved in the handling or exposure of agent orange.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a cancer involving the lymph (immune) system, which includes lymph nodes, blood and blood vessels found throughout the body, as well as the spleen, thymus and tonsils. This cancer is found in high quantities throughout circulating blood and in bone marrow (spongy material inside large bones that produces blood forming cells). CLL is characterized by the production of atypical lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are specialized immune cells, of which there are two types: B and T-cells. These cells are produced in the bone marrow and each has a very specific function in aiding the body to fight infection. The large majority of CLL cases involve mature B-lymphocytes that tend to live much longer than normal, accumulating in the blood, bone marrow, lymph nodes and spleen. This results in overcrowding of these areas, suppressing the formation and function of blood and immune cells that are normally present. Additionally, the cancerous lymphocytes themselves do not function normally, leading to a further decrease in the ability of the body to fight infection.
Herbicidal chemicals were used during the Vietnam War to thin the jungle canopies and tall grasses in Vietnam and Cambodia which supplied cover for opposition forces, and to destroy crops that may be used by the Vietnamese troops. Herbicide exposure has demonstrated an increased risk in developing Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, both cancers of the lymph system, as well as other life-threatening diseases and birth defects.
The Institute of Medicine panel recently reviewed the results from 6 separate studies to determine if an association existed between exposure to Agent Orange and herbicidal chemicals and the development of CLL. After reviewing the data, the panel concluded that exposure and/or handling of herbicidal chemicals such as Agent Orange used in the war did appear to increase the risk of developing CLL in veterans. Vietnam veterans are eligible for financial reimbursement if they can prove military status and a diagnosis of CLL.
The full report can be read at htt://www.nap.edu or obtained from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313.