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Study Eyes Link Between Agent Orange Defoliant and Leukemia

By Delthia Ricks

Agent Orange, the deadly defoliant used to make wastelands of Southeast Asian jungles, may have been the source of leukemia in some Vietnam veterans’ children, according to a report released Thursday by the Institute of Medicine.

Even though the institute, a division of the National Academies, reports suggestive evidence between Agent Orange and acute myelogenous leukemia in children, it stopped short of establishing a direct connection. Previous institute reports involving Agent Orange and childhood leukemia concluded there was “inadequate or insufficient” evidence to make the association.

Agent Orange was a code name for a powerful dioxin-based herbicide which defoliated millions of jungle acres in airborne chemical warfare from 1962 through 1970 in Vietnam and Cambodia. The name was derived from the color of the chemical’s containers. Dioxin is a chlorinated compound linked to dozens of diseases, including many forms of cancer, nerve damage and diabetes. The suggestive link between Agent Orange and acute myelogenous leukemia is new.

The institute arrived at the link between the compound and the sometimes fast-spreading cancer, which starts in the bone marrow, by analyzing a series of studies conducted by unrelated teams of researchers.

“This evidence is strong, but it’s not conclusive,” said Dr. Howard Ozer, director of the cancer center at the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City and a member of the Institute of Medicine.

“You also have to keep in mind that there, of course, were other things present in the environment in Vietnam to which these veterans could have been exposed,” Ozer said. “There were other herbicides. And, of course, there were PCBs.”

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are highly toxic compounds believed to be carcinogenic. They were used from the 1930s through the 1970s in electrical equipment as coolants and in other industrial capacities as lubricants.