Research has not established a conclusive link between Agent Orange exposure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Some data suggests people with exposure to the chemical are more likely to receive a COPD diagnosis.
However, it is unclear whether the herbicide itself causes COPD.
In this article, we examine the potential link between Agent Orange and COPD, including whether there is a relationship and if veterans with the condition qualify for disability benefits.
Agent Orange is a chemical that kills plants. The U.S. military used it to destroy large areas of rainforest during the Vietnam War. It is also toxic to humans.
People can be exposed to Agent Orange by inhaling it, through physical touch, or by consuming contaminated food or water. One of its potential effects on the lungs and airways is cancer.
Agent Orange has strong links to many types of cancer, including cancer of the:
- larynx, or voice box
- trachea, or windpipe
- bronchus, the large airways leading to the lungs
Research has not proven that Agent Orange can cause COPD.
Researchers found that there was a higher rate of COPD among people who self-reported having COPD symptoms, particularly those who had more exposure to Agent Orange.
However, when researchers based COPD diagnoses on spirometry testing alone, this association vanished. There was no significant link between COPD and Agent Orange exposure based on this testing method.
Spirometry is the
The same study also found that 20–30% of participants without a COPD diagnosis did test positive for it during spirometry testing.
This adds to the confusion around the potential relationship between Agent Orange and COPD, as the data suggests some people may be overdiagnosed while others are underdiagnosed.
More research is necessary to understand whether there is a link between COPD and Agent Orange.
The most common cause of COPD is smoking cigarettes. According to the American Lung Association, 85–90% of all COPD cases are due to cigarettes.
Other risk factors include:
- air pollution, such as car fumes or coal fire smoke
- working with certain chemicals
- frequently inhaling dust, such as flour, minerals, or silica
- a history of respiratory infections in childhood
asthma in childhood
- being born prematurely
- alpha-1 deficiency, which is a rare genetic condition
Smoking is much more common among people in the armed services than in the general population. They may also be more likely to encounter other sources of pollution that may raise the risk of COPD, such as:
- oil well fires
- burn pits
- sand and dust particles
The presumptive list includes conditions that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) presumes are from Agent Orange exposure. This means to get disability benefits, a person does not have to prove that one of these conditions is from Agent Orange if they served in an area where the U.S. military used it.
COPD is not on the presumptive list of conditions the VA believes Agent Orange can cause. However, this does not necessarily mean a person with COPD cannot receive benefits.
People with COPD may have other conditions that are on the presumptive list, such as:
The VA also gives benefits to people with conditions that are not on the presumptive list if the person can prove it is due to their time in service. For example, exposure to other types of air pollution during service could put someone at higher risk of COPD.
In some cases, people may be able to provide evidence of a “secondary service connection.” This means a primary condition, which was directly due to a person’s time in service, led to the development of another condition.
For example, a person who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be able to prove they started smoking to manage their symptoms, which later led to a secondary condition, such as COPD.
VA disability ratings affect how much compensation a person receives. The VA bases this rating on the severity of the disease and how it impacts a person.
Because COPD is a progressive illness, someone with early stage COPD may have a different rating than someone with more advanced disease. If a person has more than one condition, the VA assigns a combined disability rating.
The exact benefit a person receives also depends on whether they live alone or have dependents, such as a spouse, parents, or children.
As of December 2022, the VA disability ratings and compensation ranges are:
If a person has health concerns that could have links to Agent Orange exposure, they can speak with their local VA Environmental Health Coordinator or visit their nearest VA office. They can discuss what support is available.
If a person would like help filing a claim, they can speak with a claims agent, Veterans Service Officer, or attorney who specializes in this area. People can search for a representative to help with their claim at eBenefits.
There are also organizations that provide other types of support for people with COPD, such as:
A local VA office or doctor may be able to recommend other support groups in the local area.
It is uncertain whether there is a link between Agent Orange and COPD. While Agent Orange is toxic and known to cause cancers of the lungs and respiratory system, there is no conclusive evidence it directly causes COPD.
As a result, COPD is not on the list of presumptive conditions the VA assumes are the result of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War.
However, veterans are more likely to develop COPD for other reasons, such as exposure to other types of pollution or smoking. As a result, a person with COPD may still be eligible for disability benefits and other forms of support.