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Study Links Agent Orange to Birth Defects in Children of War Veterans

By Earl Lane

The children of soldiers exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War may be at greater risk of having a serious birth defect called spina bifida, an expert panel has found.

The finding by a committee of the Institute of Medicine is the first time a large, independent review has suggested a link between Agent Orange exposure and birth defects in the veterans' offspring, the panel chairman said Thursday.

"The newest studies give us hope that researchers are getting closer to answering the lingering questions about the health effects of herbicide exposure," said the chairman, Dr. David Tollerud, a specialist on environmental medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

While there long have been suspicions that Agent Orange may have had reproductive effects, previous major reviews - including an Institute of Medicine study two years ago - have found the evidence to be inadequate.

The new report, citing a new analysis of data from a large population study of Vietnam vets called the Ranch Hand study, says there is "limited or suggestive evidence" of a link between spina bifida and Agent Orange. Spina bifida is a malformation of the spine and spinal cord that can cause neurological problems.

"It's the first time that children have come into play here," said William W. Lewis, executive director of the New Jersey state Agent Orange Commission. "That's been a major concern of veterans over the years." He called the new finding a "bombshell" for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown said he was "deeply concerned" about the report. He ordered his agency to review the issue and present recommendations for further study within 90 days. A department spokeswoman said the review likely would discuss whether compensation is appropriate for affected vets and their children.

U.S. forces sprayed some 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange over Vietnam, beginning in 1962. Thousands of U.S. personnel were exposed to varying doses of the defoliant.

Under a law passed in 1991, the Institute of Medicine - an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences - conducts a review every two years of the scientific literature on Agent Orange's health effects. The study panels put diseases into categories, ranging from those with "sufficient" evidence of a link to Agent Orange to those with no solid evidence of association.