WASHINGTON — Former Marine Corps ground troops in Vietnam have died of lung cancer and certain lymph cancers at a significantly higher rate than their colleagues who did not serve in the war, the government said Thursday.
A study made public by the Veterans Administration was not designed to determine a cause of the higher death rates but "exposure to Agent Orange may be suspected," the report said.
The higher cancer rates noted among Marine veterans who served in Vietnam were not found among their U.S. Army counterparts. Most Marines served in what was known as I Corps, in the northernmost part of South Vietnam. Army units generally served in other areas.
Not Excessive in All Cancers
When all types of cancers were considered together, Vietnam veterans did not suffer excessive rates of cancer in comparison to their counterparts who did not go to Vietnam, the VA study said.
But the VA scientists said they found "statistically significant" higher rates for lung cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a category of several types of cancer of the lymph system, among the Marine veterans.
The study showed that Marines who served in Vietnam had a 58% higher rate of lung cancer than would be expected, based on the experience of Marines who did not go to Vietnam. For non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the rate was 110% greater than the expected number.
The VA study is the largest ever conducted on the causes of death among Vietnam veterans. It examined more than 50,000 deaths and encompassed about one-third of all deaths that have occurred among U.S. Army and Marine veterans who served in Vietnam.
Exposure Was Different
Although reasons for the different cancer rates among Army and Marine veterans were not clear, the scientists said environmental exposure in Vietnam was different because of location and duties.
The finding was described as "astounding" by the Vietnam Veterans of America, a congressionally chartered organization that has sued the VA seeking compensation for Agent Orange victims.
"That's the first very clear scientific data that would confirm our suspicions, that there really is a reason to fear Agent Orange," spokesman Mike Leaveck said.
Agent Orange spraying was heavy in both III Corps, to the south, and I Corps, said Dick Christian, director of the government's Army and Joint Services Environmental Support Group. He said, however, that no records exist for much of the spraying.
Used as Defoliant
Agent Orange was one of the herbicides sprayed from U.S. aircraft in Vietnam to defoliate dense jungle hiding places. Its use has been suspected by veterans as the cause of various ailments, including cancer and birth defects in the veterans' offspring.
VA spokesman Bonner Day said the agency would have no comment until the study is presented next month to the VA Advisory Committee on Environmental Hazards for scientific evaluation.