a plane flying over mountains, spraying agent orange which is making the shape of lungs

Agent Orange and COPD

Last updated: June 2023

The active ingredient of Agent Orange is dioxin. This chemical herbicide has been linked to several diseases and cancer. If you are less than 60 years old, you might not have heard of it before. After all, it has not been used since the Vietnam War era. This carcinogenic herbicide has also not been in production since the 1970s. When it was used, it definitely had an impact. During the 1960s, the U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of it over thick vegetation in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.1

How does Agent Orange enter the body?

Agent Orange enters the body through physical contact. If someone brushes up against plants that were sprayed, they can be contaminated. If someone eats sprayed fruit or digests chicken, eggs, dairy, fish or shellfish, they can also absorb dioxin. Once dioxin enters the body, it lasts a long time because of its chemical stability.3 Dioxin can also last for years in soil, water, and food.

Agent Orange Act of 1991

By the 1970s, high levels of dioxin were found in the blood of the U.S. military who served in Vietnam.1-5 The Department of Veterans Affairs received almost 40,000 exposure claims from soldiers. It was not until 1991, however, before the government officially declared that certain conditions were due to dioxin exposure. This recognition was officially documented in the Agent Orange Act of 1991 and has since been updated.3-4

More medical conditions were added to the Act as recently as 2010 and more conditions are being considered as future additions, including COPD. The Army Chemical Corps Vietnam-Era Veterans Health Study is looking at the links between Agent Orange exposure, COPD, and high blood pressure, among other connections.2-3

COPD and its ties to Agent Orange

Although Agent Orange has not been directly linked to COPD, it has been associated with other medical conditions and several forms of cancer.4 Agent Orange exposure is linked with a higher risk of leukemia, lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, and cancer of the colon, bladder, liver, lung, tonsils, and throat.

Dioxin exposure can also cause Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, hypothyroidism, immune system dysfunction, nerve disorders, muscular dysfunction, hormone disruption, and heart disease. Also, the chemical has been known to cause miscarriages and developmental issues in newborns. Some believe that it may contribute to Alzheimer’s or stroke. Others feel it has been genetically passed down to the children of Vietnam Era vets.5

Long-term effects and future claims

Questions still exist about the long-term effects of Agent Orange. We know that COPD is most often caused by smoking. However, roughly 15 percent of people with COPD develop it after exposure to chemicals, dust, or fumes. This means Agent Orange may have contributed to some veterans’ disease.2 As recently as 2015, the government added an extra compensation provision to the Act. Aircrews, maintenance staff, and medical evacuation teams can now receive compensation for their exposure to Agent Orange.3

The most important thing to know about Agent Orange is that there are common aspects of COPD with other respiratory diseases. Dioxin exposure can trigger flare-ups for people that have respiratory disease. Although it is almost impossible to be exposed to Agent Orange in the U.S., people with respiratory disease should avoid exposure to this chemical.

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