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Link explored between Graves disease and Agent Orange

Medical researchers have long realized that severe long-term health effects were caused by the U.S. military's use of Agent Orange chemical defoliant during the Vietnam War, both within the Vietnamese civilian population as well as among American veterans. However, research announced in 2010 added one more item to the list: exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam also seems to have increased veterans risk of contracting a thyroid condition called Graves disease.

Agent Orange was the code name for one of several chemicals deployed as mass herbicides by the U.S. military to rapidly kill off large sections of jungle suspected of hiding Vietnamese insurgents, as well as to destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of crops, during the late 1960s. Agent Orange made up the majority of the roughly 20 million gallons of defoliants sprayed over South Vietnam during the late 1960s.

Unfortunately, the use of the defoliant was not without serious consequences. The Vietnamese government and the Red Cross claim that several million Vietnamese citizens suffered from Agent Orange exposure, and that as many as several hundred thousand cases of serious birth defects and deformities are the result of parents exposure to the chemical. Studies also indicated increased risk of a wide range of cancers as well as nerve, lung, and skin diseases. The United States long denied responsibility for health consequences among the Vietnamese civilian population, and unfortunately was only modestly more generous when it came to dealing with health effects among its own veterans. Since the late 1970s there have been numerous lawsuits against Agent Orange manufacturers by American veterans as well as by Canadians living on a military base where the substance was first tested. A Vietnamese civilians' group also attempted to sue for damages, but the case was dismissed.

Most of the concerns relating to Agent Orange exposure, above, related to cancer risks and to birth deformities. However, there have been suspicions for some time that other conditions were also caused by the disease. One of these was Graves disease. A State University of New York at Buffalo study found in 2010 that Agent Orange was also linked to an increased risk of Graves disease. The research indicates that one of the chemicals found in the Agent Orange defoliant binds with cells in the body's immune system and may cause abnormal growth there. Overall, American veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to Agent Orange were three times more likely to develop Graves disease than the general population.

Graves disease is an autoimmune condition caused by overproduction of hormones in the thyroid. Normally it is an inherited condition, and is several times more likely among women than men. Untreated, it leads to a wide range of serious complications in the body, including weakened bones, heart damage, eye problems, and thyroid storms (a rare condition in which the thyroid becomes so overactive that the effects become life-threatening and require urgent treatment). Neurological symptoms are also common, including serious mood swings. Proper therapy can reduce the symptoms, depending upon how far the disease has progressed, but the most effective option available to today's medicine may be surgery to remove part of the thyroid gland (a thyroidectomy).

Please see your local county veterans service officer if you have any questions. You can contact your local VSO at (218) 631-7617 or by e-mail at As always, have a great week.