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Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used by the United States, Korea, Canada, and several other countries between 1950 and 1971, has been found to be extremely detrimental to human health. Unlike exposure to other toxins, many Agent Orange symptoms tend to take several years to decades to present, and can cause a host of health issues. Initial symptoms tend to include common side effects found with many other illnesses, as well as neurological and psychological problems. Exposure to this herbicide can also result in the development of a variety of cancers, heart diseases, and other health conditions, as well as mild to severe birth defects in the children of those exposed.
Initial exposure can result in mild to severe symptoms. Queasiness and vomiting tend to be the most common, and a person may develop kidney stones or ulcers. Other intestinal symptoms of Agent Orange include jaundice, stomach pain, and liver irritation. These Agent Orange effects typically occur shortly after contact with the herbicide, although some people may not have any symptoms of exposure until well afterward.
This herbicide can also cause severe neurological and emotional symptoms, which may become apparent directly after exposure or several years later. Headaches and odd sensations throughout the body, including tingling and numbness, are some of the most common Agent Orange symptoms. A person may also become unusually violent towards himself or others, and there is can be an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or tendencies.
Some of the most well-known symptoms of Agent Orange are the diseases that result from exposure to this herbicide. The development of cancer is one of the primary issues, and many different types have been linked to Agent Orange. Cancer of the blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes are all considered Agent Orange symptoms. Prostate cancer and cancers of the lungs, throat, and other respiratory organs can also be caused by this herbicide.
Exposure to Agent Orange has also been linked to a variety of heart diseases, including a restriction of blood flow to the heart, often resulting in heart failure. Symptoms also include increased blood pressure, which can result in several other issues with the heart, including heart attacks and strokes, when not properly managed. Those exposed to Agent Orange often develop issues with muscle control, weakness, and a lack of feeling in one or more areas of the body.
Agent Orange symptoms can also affect the children of those exposed, despite the fact that they were not exposed to the substance themselves. This typically presents in the form of several different birth defects. In severe cases, a child may be born with damage to vital organs, or even missing certain organs or body parts. In general, a child having either a mother or father who was exposed to this toxin is at increased risk for these birth defects. Those who were exposed to Agent Orange, whether male or female, also have an increased risk of them or their partner experiencing a miscarriage.
What Are Agent Orange Symptoms in Children?
There is no single list of symptoms that can be associated with Agent Orange in children. Instead, there is a list of birth defects and other medical conditions that can be traced back to exposure via the parents or grandparents of affected children. The most common birth defect in children who have secondhand exposure to the herbicide is spina bifida.
Spina bifida begins during pregnancy and occurs because the spine's neural tube doesn't close all the way during fetal development. This often happens before the parent even realizes they are pregnant. The defect means that the child's spine is not protected correctly and results in damage to the nerves and spinal cord. The disorder causes physical disabilities and sometimes leads to intellectual disabilities as well. The severity of the disorder depends on where the opening is on the spine. There are three main types of spina bifida.
- Meningocele – This type means that a sac of fluid also protrudes through the opening in the baby's back. Because the spinal cord doesn't grow into this sac, there is little to no nerve damage and typically only leads to minor disabilities.
- Myelomeningocele – This is the most serious type of spina bifida. Like meningocele, a sac of fluid protrudes through the spinal opening in this type. However, in this case, part of the spinal cord and nerves are contained in the sac and receive damage, leading to moderate to severe symptoms.
- Spina bifida occulta – Sometimes referred to as hidden spina bifida, this is the mildest form. There is a small opening on the spine but not a sac or opening on the back. Because everything functions normally, this type may not be discovered until late childhood or even adulthood.
Other common birth defects that may be traced back to secondhand Agent Orange exposure include cleft lip and palate, congenital heart disease, hip dysplasia, other types of neural tube defects, fused digits, and more.
How Is Agent Orange Passed Down?
Although a rise in birth defects has been evident since the exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, it wasn't until fairly recent advances in epigenetics that some idea of how the dangers of the herbicide were passed down became clear. It is believed that Agent Orange caused changes in gene expression, turning certain traits "on" or "off" in the people who directly handled or were otherwise exposed to the herbicide. Those mutations were then passed down to children and even grandchildren. A 2012 study of gestating female rats who were exposed to one of the byproducts of Agent Orange further confirmed this theory, as the rats passed on mutations to further generations.
Are Agent Orange Symptoms Treatable?
Since there is no set symptom list for Agent Orange, there is no specific way to treat it. However, there are ways to treat the resulting medical conditions, including spina bifida. One common way to treat spina bifida is to perform surgery either before or after birth.
Fetal surgery for spina bifida is possible once the parent reaches the 26th week of pregnancy. The surgeon opens the parent's uterus and works to repair the baby's spinal cord. Research shows that babies who undergo fetal surgery are less likely to need assistance with standing and walking during life.
Sometimes, surgery isn't possible until after the baby is born. A baby who has myelomeningocele must have surgery within 72 hours of birth to minimize the risk of infection in the exposed nerves. Early surgery also protects the spinal cord from withstanding further trauma. The surgeon exposes the baby's spinal cord and covers the exposed tissue with skin and muscle. The surgeon may also place a shunt in the brain. This is to control the buildup of fluid in the brain, which is known as hydrocephalus.
Babies who have myelomeningocele often already have irreparable nerve damage. They will need to see doctors and physical therapists, as well as many other specialists, and may need further surgeries as they age. Many babies and children need mobility aids such as braces, crutches, or wheelchairs. Others need medications, surgery, or other treatments to manage bowel and bladder problems.
People who live with spina bifida have happy and healthy lives. As those who have the disorder age, they'll need the support of their doctors, friends, and family in some cases, but can learn to care for their own needs, go to school, hold down jobs, have relationships, and have a family of their own.