Since 1991, the VA has found enough evidence to link a number of health conditions to Agent Orange exposure, but the process hasn’t been an easy one. Class-action lawsuits, large-scale cover-ups, and inaccurate scientific research have each factored into the decades-long struggle for veterans exposed to the harmful herbicide to receive the benefits they deserve.
Lawsuits, Cover-Ups, and VA Disability Benefits
When the seven chemical companies responsible for production of Agent Orange were hit with a class-action lawsuit, they settled out of court for $180 million just hours before jury selection was to begin on May 7, 1984. Unfortunately, this didn’t result in a big payout for victims of Agent Orange exposure. Accepting the paltry ($12,000 or less) settlement payments would render disabled veterans ineligible for many state benefits that would provide far more monetary support.
Although things have gotten much better since – veterans can now be service-connected for 14 different conditions caused by Agent Orange exposure – there is still a long way to go for some exposed veterans suffering from a myriad of other disabilities and diseases.
The biggest reason Agent Orange still hasn’t officially been exposed as potentially harmful is Dr. Alvin Young. Young has tirelessly worked behind the scenes as the government’s go-to consultant for everything Agent Orange, defending the herbicide against scientific evidence suggesting a link between the defoliant and cancer. Young tested it for the Air Force during the Vietnam War, helped develop a plan to destroy it at sea, and then became embroiled in a plot to melt down a fleet of C-123 aircraft used to spray the herbicide across Vietnam. In a 2001 interview, Young insists that there is “no reason why [Agent Orange] should have been destroyed.” In a 2011 email, he wrote that some vets were “freeloaders” making up stories to “cash in” on VA disability claims.
But despite his best efforts, veterans are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Possible Additions to Agent Orange Presumptive Conditions
There is a long list of potential changes that may come to Agent Orange presumptive conditions in the near future. As we have reported here in the past, the medical literature supports a strong link between Agent Orange exposure and hypertension (or high blood pressure). However, because there is a strong link between aging and hypertension, the VA has been hesitant to add it to the list of presumptively service-connected conditions.
The VA will also be evaluating the medical research linking bladder cancer to Agent Orange exposure. The Institute of Medicine has provided a study that links bladder cancer, some thyroid problems, hypertension, and Parkinson’s-like symptoms with exposure to Agent Orange. Other decisions that are upcoming are whether to extend benefits to at least some Blue Water Navy veterans, and whether to extend benefits to additional service members who served in Korea.
The VA is under no obligation to change either the list of presumptively service-connected conditions, or to extend benefits to other service members who may have been exposed to Agent Orange. However, should the rules regarding presumptive service connection change, some veterans may receive a windfall.