Agent Orange is an herbicide. It is carcinogenic to humans, meaning that it can cause cancer. One type of cancer it can cause is chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Since 2003, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA) has recognized CLL specifically relating to exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides.

Keep reading to learn more about Agent Orange and CLL, including whether or not Agent Orange can cause CLL, information about some other risks linked to the herbicide, and more.

Aircraft sprays agent orange over Vietnam. Share on Pinterest
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Aircrafts spray Agent Orange over Vietnam.

Many organizations and government agencies continue to fund research evaluating the adverse health effects related to the exposure of U.S. veterans to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

That said, at present, there have already been several studies indicating that Agent Orange exposure may cause, or increase the risk of, a number of cancers, including CLL.

A 2014 study found that having had exposure to Agent Orange decades earlier can significantly increase the risk of all types of cancer. This is likely because Agent Orange and a few other pesticides were contaminated with dioxin during production. Dioxin is an extremely toxic compound.

Because of protests from citizens and scientists regarding the potential ecological and health effects of herbicides such as Agent Orange, the government ordered a study in 1965 exploring its toxicity.

The study found that Agent Orange contained a synthetic form of the powerful toxin dioxin, or 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, which caused fetal stillbirths and malformations in those with exposure to it.

This important study led to the shutdown of the operation that was involved in the deployment of Agent Orange and other similar herbicides in 1971.

A range of studies since then have supported the theory that Agent Orange exposure increases the risk of developing CLL. This includes a 2014 study that also concluded that exposure to Agent Orange significantly increases the risk of death from CLL.

Between 1961 and 1970, the U.S. military sprayed roughly 19 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over parts of Vietnam. This was part of “Operation Ranch Hand,” a project that aimed to destroy ground cover and crops in order to expose large areas of land and starve Vietnamese troops.

Many of the estimated 3 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War had exposure to Agent Orange during their service, as did countless Vietnamese civilians.

Exposure to Agent Orange can occur due to inhalation, ingestion of contaminated foods and drinks, or absorption via the eyes or skin.

Researchers have also linked Agent Orange exposure with a range of other health conditions, including:

CLL is a cancer that begins in a certain type of immature white blood cell called lymphocytes. The body makes lymphocytes in the bone marrow, and white blood cells are involved in immune processes that prevent infection.

Lymphocytes make up most of the lymph tissue, which is located in the lymph nodes, tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and thymus gland. Lymph tissue also spreads throughout the respiratory and digestive systems.

CLL usually builds up slowly, and many people do not experience symptoms until years after it begins. However, over time, cancerous cells can grow and crowd out healthy cells in the bone marrow. They can also spread to other regions of the body, such as the blood, liver, spleen, or lymph nodes.

In many cases, there is little that people can do to prevent CLL, as most of the risk factors associated with the condition are unavoidable. These include age, sex, family history, and geographical location.

That said, people who work with and have exposure to chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides may be able to reduce their risk of CLL by reducing their exposure to these substances.

People who do use such chemicals should always wear protective equipment, such as gloves, goggles, and a mask. People should also be sure to store protective equipment safely.

There is often no cure for CLL, but treatments may slow disease progression or help manage the symptoms and complications.

Treatment for CLL depends on the person’s age, the stage of the condition, the person’s overall health, and the presence of other factors that influence their overall outlook.

Doctors will often advise people with CLL not to seek treatment until the symptoms become problematic or unless the condition is progressing quickly. This is due to the side effects associated with treatment.

Some treatment options for CLL include:

  • targeted drugs such as monoclonal antibodies
  • chemotherapy medications
  • low-dose radiation to treat swollen lymph nodes or enlarged spleens
  • surgery to remove enlarged spleens
  • leukapheresis, which is a procedure to lower the white blood cell count in the blood before chemotherapy begins
  • stem cell transplant

There are several additional risk factors for CLL, such as:

  • age, as the risk of CLL increases with age, and 9 out of 10 people with CLL are 50 years of age or older
  • farming or other jobs that involve long-term exposure to certain pesticides
  • radon exposure in the home
  • family history, as people who have relatives with CLL are twice as likely to develop CLL themselves
  • sex, as CLL tends to affect males more than females
  • ethnicity, as CLL tends to affect people in Europe and North America more than people in Asia

In many cases CLL, is not curable.

A person’s outlook with CLL depends largely on their individual health factors. It also depends greatly on the stage of their cancer.

Doctors in the U.S. most often use the Rai staging system to describe the stages of CLL. This system assesses the severity of someone’s cancer on a scale of 1–4.

Someone’s outlook typically worsens the higher their Rai stage. Several additional biological or genetic factors and characteristics of someone’s cancer may also worsen their outlook with CLL.

People with CLL require continuous follow-up monitoring, screening, and care. They may also be able to improve their outlook by avoiding tobacco smoke, exercising regularly, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Doctors classify people with CLL into risk groups based on factors affecting their outlook. Based on the CLL risk group, someone’s estimated survival for 5 years or longer after diagnosis is:

  • 95% for people at low risk
  • 80% for people at intermediate risk
  • 65% for people at high risk
  • 25% for people at very high risk

Agent Orange, which is an herbicide that the U.S. military used predominately in the Vietnam War, causes cancer, including CLL.

The USDVA claims that Vietnam and Korean War veterans with qualifying service do not need to prove the relationship between their exposure to Agent Orange and CLL to be eligible for disability and VA healthcare.

There are also benefits available for the biological children of veterans with qualifying service in the Vietnam or Korean Wars who are born with related birth anomalies.

A survivor’s benefit in the form of compensation and healthcare exists for the surviving spouses, dependent children, and dependent parents of veterans who experienced Agent Orange exposure during military service and who died from conditions related to this exposure.