Agent Orange and its Effects on Skin Cancer Risks for Vietnam Vets

In a recent study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange were tested for increased risk of non-melanotic skin cancer (NMSC). In this study, it was determined that even forty years after exposure, there remains a greater chance for NMSC developing.

For background, Agent Orange was used as a herbicide able to cut through thick foliage, leading to its use in the jungles of Vietnam. The chemical itself is considered carcinogenic (cancer-causing) due to a compound in it called TCDD. TCDD is a highly toxic chemical and considered one of the most carcinogenic compounds ever to undergo widespread use in the environment.

The research team looked at the medical records of 100 light-skinned veterans who declared that they had been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In this sense, “exposure” refers to living in, working in, or traveling through an area in which Agent Orange was used, or actively using Agent Orange during the war. Of the men who were exposed but did not actively use the herbicide, 51% developed NMSC. This increased to 73% for men who were directly exposed.

While rates for malignant melanoma (a life-threatening form of skin cancer) were relatively close to citizens not exposed to Agent Orange, the rates of NMSC were staggeringly high. Of those that developed skin cancer, the rate at which they had to have multiple surgeries to treat the cancer was also increased.

The carcinogenic effects of Agent Orange have been known since the mid-1980s. Despite this knowledge, more research is still needed to determine this group of veteran’s relative risk and the appropriate management strategies so that these vets receive the care they’ve earned.

Other Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

It is important to educate yourself on the multiple risk factors that can also contribute to developing skin cancer.

Bodily Risk

  • Age: As our bodies age, our risk of developing skin cancer increases. This is in part due to the increased exposure that you receive to UV radiation through sunlight and medical procedures.
  • Skin/Hair/Eye Tone: Studies show that the lighter your skin, hair, or eyes, the more likely it is that you will develop skin cancer at some point in your lifetime.
  • Large Number of Moles: While most moles are benign (harmless), having a large number of moles on your body increases the risk of developing melanoma. The larger or more abnormal your moles are can also play a part in developing melanoma.

Genetic Risk

  • Family History: Having a close family member including parents or siblings that develop skin cancer can be a large indicator for your risk of developing the same or similar types of cancer.
  • Personal History: If you have had skin cancer before, or you have had a large number of sunburns throughout your life, there is a greater risk of developing skin cancers, including melanoma.

Livelihood Risk

  • Smoking: Smokers are at a greater risk of developing almost all types of cancers, including skin cancer. The greatest risk of skin cancer for smokers includes NMSC of the lips.
  • Radiation or Chemical Exposure: Exposure to radiation through sunlight or medical procedures or exposure to chemicals such as arsenic or fossil fuels can increase the risk for NMISC.
  • Area of Residence: Living in areas with greater sunlight or higher altitudes where the sunlight is more intense increases the risk of developing skin cancer due to increased UV exposure.

It is highly recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology that everyone undergo a comprehensive yearly skin exam by a dermatologist, or another qualified medical professional to check for skin cancer or other diseases. Non-melanotic skin cancer is considered treatable in most cases, and it is highly recommended you seek medical attention for the condition.

If you or a loved one exhibit any signs of skin cancer, have an increased risk of developing skin cancer, or have been exposed to chemicals that may increase the likelihood of developing skin cancer, please schedule an appointment to get checked today.