AGENT ORANGE
AP file
U.S. Air Force planes spray the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over dense vegetation in South Vietnam in this 1966 photo. Air Force researchers found elevated risks of prostate and skin cancer and also diabetes in those who sprayed the chemical defoliant.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/23/2004 1:42:44 PM ET 2004-01-23T18:42:44

Air Force veterans who were exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War have an increased risk of prostate and skin cancer, military researchers reported.

The ongoing study of 2,000 Vietnam veterans shows for the first time an elevated risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Previous studies have found increased risks of prostate cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and also diabetes.

“A new analysis of cancer incidence among Air Force veterans of the Vietnam War found increased risks of prostate cancer and melanoma in those who sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides,” the Air Force Surgeon General’s office said in a statement.

It does not find the veterans are any more likely to die of these cancers than the general population.

“It’s just because we have new numbers, new exams,” a spokesman said. “The guys are getting older, so we are seeing higher incidences.”

The study is to be reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences, which will report its results to the Veterans Affairs Department.

Complaints of health problems
Between 1962 and 1971 an estimated 20 million gallons of herbicides, including Agent Orange, were used to strip Vietnam’s thick forests to make bombing easier.

Veterans exposed to the powerful pesticides have complained for years about a variety of health problems, and in the late 1970s the government started to investigate them systematically.

The latest study, to be published next month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, is not the last word on cancer and Agent Orange, the Surgeon General’s office warned. It has many weaknesses and must be studied along with other research.

Operation Ranch Hand
For this particular study veterans called the Ranch Hand group are being examined regularly. Operation Ranch Hand was the unit responsible for the aerial spraying of herbicides and medical experts say they got the highest exposure to Agent Orange, which contains dioxins and other toxic chemicals.

Starting in 1986, their blood was tested for dioxin, a chemical that builds up in the body and that can cause cancer and birth defects.

“The dioxin determinations were accurate but were measured 15 to 30 years after service in the Ranch Hand unit,” the surgeon general’s statement said.

“The study interpretations are limited because other environmental exposures were not measured.”

Vietnam’s government says about 1 million Vietnamese are victims of Agent Orange, including veterans, civilians living in affected areas and their descendants. The U.S. government maintains there is no proven direct link between dioxin and many of those illnesses.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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