Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the U.S. Military as part of its herbicidal warfare program during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971, may still be causing health problems for Vietnamese children today, a study in Japan has found.
In the research published in “Science of The Total Environment“, Japanese researchers say that even decades later exposure to the herbicide can still cause increased levels of some hormones in women and the children they breastfed.
According to Science Daily, the new study from Kanazawa University pointed out that such effect in hormones places them at higher risk of health problems.
Up to four million people in Vietnam were exposed to Agent Orange when it was sprayed during the Vietnam War. Earlier studies have established that exposure to the chemical may lead to health problems in men, including the development of prostate cancer. Decades later, an estimated one million are still known to be suffering serious health issues because of it.
The new study may even cause that number to grow as this is the first time the impact of dioxin found in herbicide has been discovered in women and babies.
“Dioxin hotspots in the South of Vietnam are of the most severely polluted regions in the world,” lead researcher Professor Teruhiko Kido was quoted as saying.
“We know exposure to dioxins has an impact on our hormone levels, and we wanted to know if this was being passed through generations and potentially putting babies at risk in these areas.”
Often used in different industrial and agricultural activities, the herbicide has been found to have caused hotspots of dioxin contamination. Affected areas in southern Vietnam have reportedly exhibited two to five-fold higher concentrations of the chemical than in other regions.
Dioxin, a significant contaminant of Agent Orange, is known as an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC), which affects the way hormones interact and communicate with each other around the body. Such chemicals are known to cause birth defects, cancer, and mental disorders.
An imbalance caused by dioxins on a hormone responsible for the development of male and female traits called Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), often mean health problems as well as physical disfigurement.
“Decades of industrial development and chemicals released during the Vietnam War have led to high levels of dioxins in the soil and atmosphere and people are absorbing these chemicals from the food they eat and the air they breathe,” Prof. Kido explained.
“We know dioxins have an impact on our hormones, so we wanted to see whether they were being passed from mother to baby.”
The research involved an assessment of 104 women with their newborn babies from a region in northern Vietnam which was not sprayed with the agent and Bien Hoa, the city where 50% of Agent Orange used in the war was stored.
At least four leaks of Agent Orange reportedly occurred in Bien Hoa in 1969-1970. Even after five decades, high levels of the chemicals are still found in environmental and human samples around the area.
During the study, the dioxin levels in the mothers’ breast milk were analyzed, while levels of the hormone DHEA were checked from samples of saliva taken from the babies.
The findings would reveal that there is almost a three-fold increase in DHEA in babies from Bien Hoa than those from the non-contaminated region. According to the scientists, this established that dioxins are transferred from mother to baby.
“Our study confirms how sensitive and vulnerable children are to the environmental toxins their parents and even earlier generations have been exposed to,” Prof. Kido further noted.
“There is a lot we still don’t know what this means for children’s health and what the long-term impact could be, but studying people in these dioxin hotspots gives researchers the chance to understand the implications better.”
To get a more accurate assessment of the effect of the dioxins found in Agent Orange to the offsprings’ early life, Kido said he and his research team are set to follow the children in the study up to the age of 10.