A breakthrough in the difficult effort to link Vietnam veterans' ailments to the wartime herbicide Agent Orange was proclaimed Wednesday with the release of a medical study verifying for the first time that veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange still carry high levels of its dioxin poison.
"We have found some startling evidence that we believe will reopen the Agent Orange issue," said Allen Falk, chairman of a New Jersey state commission that organized a three-year investigation of selected veterans by U.S. and Swedish scientists.
Appearing with key House members and Vietnam veterans at a news conference, Falk said he expects the study to affect a court case in which a $225-million settlement won in 1985 by veterans against seven chemical manufacturers has been held up by a federal appeals court. The court blocked distribution of the money based on continuing complaints that the ailments had not been connected to Agent Orange exposure.
Expects New Investigation
Falk said he expects the study to prompt renewed efforts by the federal government to investigate health problems that thousands of veterans seeking Veterans Administration disability payments contend were caused by Agent Orange.
Last July, the federal Centers for Disease Control told Congress that inadequate military records made it impossible to pursue such an inquiry, which already has cost nearly $40 million. A White House science panel reached the same conclusion.
However, Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Veterans subcommittee on hospitals and health care, said there are indications now that the CDC will shift its investigation in the direction of the New Jersey study, which cost only $400,000.
CDC officials could not be reached for comment.
Three Groups of Veterans
The New Jersey study was based on a new high-tech method of measuring tiny amounts of dioxin in blood and fat tissue taken from three groups of Vietnam veterans: 10 who the Pentagon confirmed had handled Agent Orange regularly, 10 who served in Vietnam but had little or no exposure to the defoliant and 7 who were stationed outside Vietnam during the war.
The study found that the average dioxin level in the high-exposure group was 48 parts per trillion--seven times higher than the low-exposure group and 10 times higher than the group from outside Vietnam.
Dr. Michael Gochfeld, a professor at Rutgers Medical School, said that this first-time finding is highly significant but that a crucial question remains: What levels of dioxin are necessary before dioxin-related health effects appear? The poison has been linked scientifically to cancer, and veterans have contended that they have also suffered from nerve defects, skin conditions and defects in offspring.
Gochfeld said that investigators hope to establish by the end of the year whether health problems suffered by those in the high-exposure group could be tied to the high levels of dioxin in their systems. This will be done by studying the results of extensive epidemiological, immunological and other tests conducted on the three groups of veterans.
Rep. James J. Florio (D-N. J.), a key mover of legislation to guard against toxic chemicals, called the new study "a major scientific breakthrough" that will have "an immediate national impact on the entire Agent Orange issue."
Dr. Ralph W. Fogleman, a leader of the research team, said it is "phenomenal" that even trace amounts of dioxin would remain in the body 15 and 20 years after exposure.
"The fact we were able to detect this specific isomer is of extreme importance" not only for continued research on Agent Orange, he said, but also for testing suspected victims of chemical contaminants in industry and agriculture.