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Agent Orange Exposure: The Side Effects No One Expected

Agent Orange exposure has led to long-term health effects in many Vietnam era veterans, including multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s Disease, and various types of cancer.

An herbicide known as Agent Orange came into play in the Vietnam War. United States military personnel used Agent Orange to clear trees and vegetation in fields known to hide enemies. Unfortunately, Agent Orange exposure has led to long-term health effects in many Vietnam-era veterans, including multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s Disease, and various types of cancer.


Diseases Caused by Agent Orange

  • AL Amyloidosis
  • Chronic B-Cell Leukemia
  • Chloracne
  • Diabetes Type 2
  • Hodgkin’s Disease
  • Hormone Disruption
  • Hypertension
  • Ischemic Heart Disease
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Peripheral Neuropathy
  • Porphyria Cutanea Tarda
  • Prostate Cancer
  • Respiratory Cancers
  • Soft Tissue Sarcomas

United States military veterans use many tactics to fulfill military-related tasks. During the Vietnam War, fought between North and South Vietnamese and the South’s ally, the United States, one of the most renowned tasks was the use of Agent Orange to eliminate enemy hiding spots in dense, jungle-like foliage. Health officials have since linked the herbicide to several health conditions that many exposed veterans now have.

What Is Agent Orange?

Agent Orange is a herbicide originating during the Vietnam War between North Vietnam, with the help of the Viet Cong, and South Vietnam, with the United States as an ally. Although the United States military knew the herbicide exposure could be harmful to enemy troops, it wasn’t aware that it could potentially harm each Vietnam War veteran that came in contact with it, too.

However, just short-term exposure to dioxin, a toxic chemical, and byproduct of Agent Orange, can cause health problems like type 2 diabetes, hormone disruption, and peripheral neuropathy. The herbicide is also connected to some congenital disabilities in children of Vietnam veterans, including spina bifida, heart defects, cleft palate, and cleft lip.

Since the late 1970s, Vietnam veteran groups have fought to seek compensation for Agent Orange victims. Many conditions the United States Department of Veterans Affairs connects to Agent Orange exposure may qualify for VA benefits. The VA will often pay out VA disability benefits to victims of dioxin exposure under a presumptive service connection as part of the Agent Orange Act of 1991.

About Diseases Caused by Agent Orange

Although there may be other conditions and Agent Orange side effects that stem from your exposure to the herbicide, the following are some of the most common ones that qualify for disability compensation with a presumptive connection from the VA. If you believe your application for disability benefits has been wrongly denied, you should contact a VA disability attorney for help.

AL Amyloidosis

AL amyloidosis is one form of amyloidosis, a protein disorder connected to Agent Orange herbicide exposure. The condition causes the body to make too many light chain proteins that enter organs and make them work less effectively. Amyloidosis can affect almost any organ, including the heart, kidneys, lungs, stomach, and even the skin. Depending on the affected organs, you might experience symptoms like swollen legs and feet, chest pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, bruising, constipation, and an enlarged tongue. Various chemotherapy medications and steroids may be part of your treatment course.

Chronic B-Cell Leukemia

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) that affects the body’s B-cells is known as chronic B-cell leukemia. This condition is a type of cancer that takes over the white blood cells responsible for keeping the immune system running strong. People with this condition experience a weakened immune system that leaves them incapable of fighting infections and viruses effectively. Although CLL is the most common form of leukemia in adults, it still can be difficult to cure. Treatment usually involves chemotherapy drugs, but a bone marrow transplant may be necessary in some cases.


There is a direct link between exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange and chloracne. This condition causes severe blemishes on the face, like nodules, cysts, and blackheads. Some other areas of the body, like the neck and groin, may also become affected. Symptoms of chloracne can become worse as a person gets older, and the skin gets thicker and drier. The most severe cases can lead to various open sores that can become itchy, painful, and infected.

Diabetes Type 2

Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which the VA doesn’t require you to prove a service connection if you have been diagnosed and served in the Vietnam War. Type 2 diabetes can have severe symptoms if you don’t manage it through exercise, a healthy diet, and medications. This condition prevents your body from using insulin properly to convert sugars to energy. Without proper management, you could experience problems with your feet, kidneys, nerves, heart, and eyes.

Hodgkin’s Disease

Research has determined that dioxin is a carcinogen, and Hodgkin’s Disease, also known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is a common lymphatic system cancer linked to the chemical. Hodgkin’s Disease causes white blood cells to reproduce abnormally fast, throwing off the immune system and making it challenging to fight illnesses and infections. Swollen lymph nodes are a tell-tale symptom of this condition, but people may also experience extreme fatigue, trouble breathing, itchy skin, and random fevers. Medical professionals rate the disease on a scale from 1 to 4, with 4 being the most widespread and dangerous.

Hormone Disruption

Research has linked dioxin exposure to hormone imbalances, especially with the hormone Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA helps produce estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones that lend to male and female characteristics. Babies in Agent Orange-contaminated areas of Vietnam had a much higher supply of DHEA in their saliva than those in non-contaminated regions, suggesting that dioxin moves from mother to baby and affects hormone production. Vietnam veterans may also be more at risk for developing Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disorder that stems from an overactive thyroid gland.


The VA recently expanded its list of presumptive medical conditions from Agent Orange exposure. Notably, the VA added monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) and hypertension (high blood pressure) to its list of presumptive conditions. That means that veterans suffering from either of the two conditions who also served in the Vietnam War or related stations might be eligible for disability benefits.

Hypertension wasn’t on the list of presumptive conditions for a long time. Other medical conditions like diabetes mellitus type 2,  ischemic heart disease, and Hodgkin’s disease are listed as presumptive conditions.

As a result of the Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022, the Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to add hypertension to its list of presumptive conditions for all veterans who served in the Vietnam War who were exposed to Agent Orange.

Because of the PACT Act, Vietnam veterans suffering from hypertension or those who meet other presumptive condition requirements might be eligible for disability benefits, even if they didn’t before.

For example, if you were a Vietnam veteran and developed high blood pressure, you could not receive disability compensation automatically (though you can still be able to with enough evidence). Today, if your claim wasn’t approved, you can reapply for compensation and possibly get it with the help of an experienced Veteran law attorney.

Further, even though you have been receiving disability payments from the VA, you can receive retroactive benefits for the years or months when you should have received compensation because of your high blood pressure.

It’s essential to note that you must apply for general and retroactive compensation separately. The VA won’t award you the benefits automatically, even though you have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Although the VA’s decision on high blood pressure and Agent Orange exposure is pretty beneficial, it’s essential to note that the VA does not define hypertension the same way other medical organizations do.

For example, the CDC defines hypertension as a systolic blood pressure over 130 mm HG and a diastolic blood pressure above 80 mm Hg. Chances are that any medical doctor you see also accepts this definition since it’s the medical industry standard.

However, the VA disability process awards benefits for compensation for hypertension if only you meet the following requirements:

  • A hypertension ratio of 160 mm Hg or more/90 mm Hg or more
  • A hypertension ratio of 160 mm Hg /less than 90 mm Hg

Ischemic Heart Disease

Ischemic heart disease prevents the heart from receiving enough blood and oxygen, usually due to narrowed arteries leading to the heart. Some people may have no symptoms of the condition, while others experience dizziness, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Without treatment, ischemic heart disease can lead to a heart attack. A Vietnam vet can get Agent Orange benefits for disability if they’ve received a diagnosis of a related condition, like coronary artery disease or coronary heart disease, which falls under the umbrella of ischemic heart disease.

What’s the Average Disability Payment for Ischemic Heart Disease Caused by Agent Orange?

Ischemic heart disease is characterized by reduced blood flow to the heart muscle, leading to chest pain (angina) or a heart attack. For veterans exposed to Agent Orange during their service, the VA  provides disability compensation to veterans who develop ischemic heart disease from the exposure.

While it’s impossible to provide an exact average disability payment for Agent Orange-related ischemic heart disease, the payment amount increases with the assigned disability rating. Veterans can reference the VA’s Compensation and Pension Rate Tables to determine the specific payment amount based on their disability rating and individual circumstances. The more severe the symptoms, the more likely veterans will be highly rated.

Here’s what we do know. The specific rating for ischemic heart disease depends on factors such as the frequency and duration of angina episodes, the need for medication to control symptoms, and any limitations in physical activity. The rating schedule also considers objective medical evidence, such as diagnostic test results, medical records, and treatment history.

The disability ratings for ischemic heart disease related to Agent Orange exposure can vary depending on the severity of the condition. For example, a 10% rating may be assigned if the condition requires continuous medication. In contrast, a higher rating may be given if there are more frequent and severe episodes of angina or if the condition significantly limits physical activity.

*The disability payment amount for ischemic heart disease related to Agent Orange exposure is based on the assigned disability rating. The VA’s disability compensation rates are adjusted annually and vary depending on the veteran’s marital status and number of dependents.

Multiple Myeloma

Multiple myeloma is another form of cancer that affects the white blood cells, specifically the plasma cells. These cells are responsible for making blood plasma that fights infection and illness. Affected cells crowd within the bone marrow and prevent healthy cells from remaining where they need to. Common symptoms include fatigue, frequent illness, bone pain, and leg weakness or numbness. People who have multiple myeloma usually receive a diagnosis of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) first. However, the condition often escalates to multiple myeloma.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is similar to Hodgkin’s Disease except that the white blood cells affected in each are different. This type of lymphoma is more common than Hodgkin’s Disease, but it can also be more challenging to treat. Affected cells in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can appear in several parts of the body, while the cells affected by Hodgkin’s Disease are usually concentrated in the neck region. It’s not until the advanced stages that professionals will usually detect non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s Disease usually worsens over time and causes symptoms like uncontrollable shaking, coordination problems, and damage to nerve cells that can make it difficult to do tasks like walking and speaking. The VA gives veterans with this disease a minimum of a 30 percent disability rating, which can increase, depending on the severity of symptoms you experience.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy may exist with a diabetes diagnosis, especially if diabetes is not well-managed in a patient. However, it can also exist alone or with other conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Peripheral neuropathy also occurs with chemical exposure, like that of dioxin. The condition causes pain and numbness in the body, usually in the hands and feet. Heat intolerance, bowel and bladder problems, and muscle weakness can also be symptoms. Although the condition isn’t necessarily reversible, early detection can help your medical team determine a course of action to manage your symptoms and treat underlying conditions.

Porphyria Cutanea Tarda

Porphyria Cutanea Tarda (PCT) causes painful lesions on the skin stemming from a rare blood disorder. People with PCT are often more sensitive to the sun than others, and they may develop blisters after being in the sun for short periods. Sores can also occur after minor injuries. Over time, the skin may become thicker, crusted, or scarred, but some areas may also become thinner and more sensitive to injury. If this condition occurs within one year of Agent Orange exposure, you may be eligible for VA benefits.

Prostate Cancer

Research has shown that veterans with Agent Orange exposure are more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer in addition to other cancers linked to the chemical. If your prostate cancer requires surgery, you may be eligible for a 100% disability rating, at least until after your surgery. Your disability rating may increase once again if other treatments become necessary.

Respiratory Cancers

Respiratory cancers can include cancer of the lungs, bronchus, trachea, and larynx. Any of these cancers can result in disability benefits from the VA without the applicant needing to prove their service connection. With a proper diagnosis of respiratory cancer in a veteran with Agent Orange exposure, the VA will provide a 100% disability rating as long as the cancer is active and during treatment. This means that the veteran will receive the highest compensation that fits their eligibility bracket.

Soft Tissue Sarcomas

A soft tissue sarcoma is a buildup of cancer cells in the body’s soft tissues. They can occur anywhere in the body, usually causing swelling or a lump in the area. Medical professionals diagnose the condition in grades, with a grade of 3 typically having the lowest prognosis and 1 having the best. Chemical exposure is a known cause of soft tissue sarcomas, and the VA readily links them to Agent Orange exposure for VA disability benefits.

VA Disability Benefits for Agent Orange

How do you qualify for Agent Orange benefits? For the conditions above, you may not need to prove a service connection. However, you will need to provide the VA with medical evidence of your diagnosis so it can evaluate your condition and give you a relevant disability rating.

The VA has a long list of illnesses and diseases related to Agent Orange exposure that are eligible for disability compensation. The VA wants to make it easy for Veterans with an approved illness to get the disability compensation they deserve.

Update: In May 2021, the VA made it even easier for veterans to get the help they need.

The VA has added 3 new presumptive conditions related to Agent Orange exposure. Veterans and survivors with these presumptive conditions are now also eligible for benefits:

  • Parkinsonism
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Bladder cancer

The good news is that you don’t have to file anything to claim these new benefits. If the VA denied your claim in the past for any of these conditions, you will receive a notification that your case is once again under review.

Health Care Benefits for Veterans Exposed to Agent Orange

The passing of the Agent Orange Act in 1991 expanded the benefits available to Vietnam veterans exposed to defoliants, dioxin, and herbicides known as Agent Orange. The act allowed the National Academy of Sciences to gather and analyze data to learn more about presumptive military exposure to toxins during the Vietnam era.

As a result of this research, veterans with Agent Orange exposure can enroll in VA health care. To be eligible, veterans must have served in the Vietnam War anytime during the period of January 9, 1962, through May 7, 1975, in Vietnam or on a vessel within 12 nautical miles of the demarcation line of Vietnam and Cambodia waters. Eligibility is also based on income limits.

Applying for VA health care is a quick process. Typically, veterans will receive a decision within one week. Veterans can apply online or by printing out the VA form 10-10EZ and deliveri
g it to a local VA clinic in person or through the mail. Veterans can also apply over the phone.

Some basic information is needed to apply for VA health care. Be sure to have the following information available before beginning the application:

  • Military discharge papers (Form DD-214)
  • Social Security number
  • Medical insurance information (name, contact information, policy number)
  • Gross household income
  • Deductible expenses

Once enrolled in VA health care, Agent Orange veterans can receive treatment for medical conditions related to military exposures and service-connected disabilities.

Agent Orange Registry Health Exam

The Agent Orange Registry Health Exam is offered to veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange. The exam provides a way for veterans to learn more about the potential health effects of exposure and it allows researchers to gather data required to understand exposure illnesses better.

To qualify for the Agent Orange Registry Health Exam, Vietnam veterans must have served between 1969 and 1971 in Vietnam, the DMZ in Korea, or select Thailand locations. Also, veterans who flew in a C-123 airplane from 1969-1983 are eligible to receive the exam. Family members are not eligible.

The exam consists of a physical exam along with a review of exposure history and medical records of any health concerns believed to be related to Agent Orange exposure. A VA medical professional will discuss the results with the veteran during a consultation after the exam, and a written report will be mailed.

While it can help provide supporting medical documentation, the Agent Orange Registry medical examination is not connected to any other veterans benefits offered by Veterans Affairs. Veterans seeking disability compensation for presumptive disabilities such as bladder cancer, Parkinsonism, or hypothyroidism will still need to apply for benefits regardless of participating in the Agent Orange Registry health exam.

Veterans who are having difficulty finding treatment for their medical symptoms can be referred to the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC). The WRIISC seeks to help wartime veterans with illnesses that are difficult to diagnose. The study center has a location in Washington, D.C., East Orange, NJ, and Palo Alto, CA.

To participate in the WRIISC, veterans must have a referral and must be enrolled in VA health care. Referrals can be obtained from their Primary Care Manager or a VA Environmental Registry Coordinator. To submit a referral, providers will describe the unexplained systems and include any test results received from outside the VA health care systems.

The eligibility requirements for the program are few. Veterans must be physically and mentally stable. The veteran’s unexplained symptoms must have lasted at least six months and must be connected to military service.

Once the referral is approved, the veteran will receive an e-consult, and future tests may be ordered. Any recommendations of the WRIISC will be sent to the referring primary care manager.

The Side Effects of Agent Orange

Agent Orange’s side effects are often long-term and can affect the daily quality of life of exposed veterans.

Veterans who worked with Agent Orange may be more susceptible to various forms of cancer and could benefit from VA health care and disability benefits to get them through diagnoses and treatments and makeup lost income as a result. Speak with a VSO or a disability attorney if you need guidance during this process.


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