What Are the Different Birth Defects from Agent Orange?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2019
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Birth defects from Agent Orange can include neural tube defects, cleft lip and palate, extra digits, and intellectual disabilities. These are caused by dioxin, one of the key ingredients in this chemical. Much of the research on this subject involves reports from Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese people exposed to this defoliant during the Vietnam War. Aircraft dropped large volumes of herbicides during the war to limit the available plant cover for Vietnamese soldiers.

When the neural tube, a structure that emerges early in fetal development, fails to form properly, a neural tube defect is the result. Conditions like spina bifida and ancephaly, where the brain fails to completely form, are examples of these birth defects from Agent Orange. Other children may have intellectual disabilities that can cause varying degrees of impairment due to abnormalities in the brain. Cleft lip and palate can also occur as a result of problems with fetal development. These conditions can be challenging and difficult to treat.

Some birth defects from Agent Orange cause patients to develop polydactly, where they have extra fingers and toes. This can be treatable with surgery and may not cause lasting problems. Hernias are also common, and can be managed with surgery as well. Miscarriage and stillbirth are also potential complications of chemical exposure, caused by birth defects which are incompatible with life. Parents with concerns can ask for a medical evaluation after a bad outcome in a pregnancy to explore possible causes.


Research on birth defects from Agent Orange shows that they can occur when either partner is exposed to the chemical. Men may experience problems with their sperm after exposure, and could carry sperm with defects for several weeks after the exposure. Women who come into contact with Agent Orange while pregnant may have children with birth defects, depending on the timing and intensity of the exposure. This chemical can also cause chronic health problems which may contribute to birth defects.

Many of these congenital abnormalities can be diagnosed with prenatal screening, as they can be visible on an ultrasound. In some cases, people with birth defects from Agent Orange may be entitled to compensation or assistance from the government or a worker’s compensation fund, depending on the circumstances of an exposure. Parents of children with such birth defects can discuss the options with their doctors. Compensation may help them pay for surgery and other needs to support the child, particularly if a complex disability that requires life-long assistance occurs as a result of the Agent Orange exposure.


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