More Aid for Agent Orange Vets : 1st Time VA Ties Cancer to Defoliant
Vietnam veterans with soft-tissue sarcoma, a rare form of cancer linked to Agent Orange exposure, will become eligible for disability payments, Veterans Secretary Edward J. Derwinski said today.
The decision marked the first time the Department of Veterans Affairs, acting under guidelines relaxed last year, has accorded “service-connected” status to a disease directly on the ground of exposure to the defoliant.
“This is the first disease to have been given service connection based on Agent Orange exposure,” a department spokesman, Bonner Day, said.
Soft-tissue sarcomas are cancers found on muscles, connective tissue or in body fat. Agent Orange, which contains dioxin, was widely sprayed in undiluted form during the Vietnam War in order to strip the jungle cover used by communist forces.
“I believe this is another step forward in resolving a most difficult and emotional issue,” Derwinski said. “We intend to proceed as quickly as possible to award compensation to these veterans who are so deserving of our care and concern.”
The decision was seen as a small victory by Vietnam veterans’ groups that have argued for years that a wide range of ailments may be tied to Agent Orange’s extensive use during the war.
“We see it as a small step in the right direction that’s terribly long overdue,” said John Hanson, a spokesman for the national headquarters of the American Legion.
On March 29, the Veteran Affairs department granted disability compensation to Vietnam veterans for another rare cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that decision did not acknowledge any link to Agent Orange. Instead, it was based on the results of case studies by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control.
Day, the VA spokesman, said the soft-tissue sarcoma decision followed a recommendation by a federal advisory committee that had reviewed 80 studies under the looser rules set by Derwinski last November.
Under those rules, the advisory panel must find only a statistical relationship between Agent Orange exposure and the disease. Previously, a finding of a causal relationship had been necessary.
The VA’s Veterans Advisory Committee on Environmental Hazards, a panel made up of outside scientists and lay people, found that there is “at least as likely as not” a significant statistical association between soft-tissue sarcoma and exposure to the herbicide.
The VA said that any Vietnam veteran is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.
Veterans have been fighting for years to receive compensation for diseases they say were caused by Agent Orange. As many as 28 health problems, mostly cancers, can be associated with exposure, according to Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., a special adviser to Derwinski.
The VA plans to publish its final compensation regulation for soft-tissue sarcomas in early fall. An estimated 1,100 veterans or their survivors are expected to receive compensation for soft-tissue sarcomas to start with. An additional 50 claims annually are expected thereafter, given the long latency period for cancer.