Many veterans struggling with Parkinson’s Disease are also struggling with the VA. Parkinson’s Disease is one of the illnesses the VA presumes is related to Agent Orange exposure. However, many Vietnam-era vets are unable to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange, due to being stationed in Thailand, Korea, or even in CONUS. While a claim for Parkinson’s by a veteran with presumed Agent Orange exposure may be easier, all is not lost.
Several chemicals veterans are exposed to on a regular basis have been shown to cause Parkinson’s Disease and related neurodegenerative disorders.
Malaria was a common problem during the Vietnam War, and in order to reduce the levels of mosquitos, the United States Military launched “Operation Flyswatter.” 1.76 million liters of malathion concentrate was sprayed overhead from airplanes, often at dusk as soldiers were eating. Many bases in Thailand were fogged heavily with malathion every day in order to reduce mosquito population.
Organophosphate pesticides such as malathion have been shown to have a clear and consistent relationship to Parkinson’s Disease. In fact, the mechanisms that make pesticides so useful in killing mosquitos are similar to the mechanisms that cause Parkinsonian symptoms. Parkinson’s involves a loss of neurons that regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine in a specific area of the brain called the substantia nigra. This typically happens with Parkinson’s via either oxidative stress on the neurons, or by dysfunction of a gene that creates a protein in the brain called α-synuclein. In fact, Lewy bodies, one of the defining characteristics of Parkinson’s, are composed of α-synuclein.
Pesticides have been shown in many studies to cause both oxidative stress and errors in the expression of the α-synuclein gene, among other genes. One study found that those exposed to pesticides had a 5.66 greater incidence of faulty genes involved in transporting dopamine.
Another study found that those who sprayed pesticides or insecticides at least once a year for 5 years (not necessarily consecutively) had seven times higher odds for developing Parkinsonism.
While we still don’t completely understand how Parkinson’s begins, the evidence connecting pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s is strong. While some other pesticides, such as Paraquat and rotenone are even more likely to cause PD than Malathion, it may prove more difficult to show exposure in-service.
I’ve written previously about how much JP-4 veterans were exposed to regularly, and I’ve briefly written about damaging jet fuel exposure can be for the brain. JP-4 contains many chemicals that damage the brain, and a few of these have been shown to be related to Parkinson’s. The toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene found in JP-4 have been shown to cause dysfunction in dopamine transmission, specifically in the areas of the brain affected by Parkinson’s. A chemical called n-Hexane has also been shown in many studies to cause problems with dopamine transmission. There are even case reports of patients where the cause of their Parkinson’s was fully known to be exposure to n-Hexane. N-Hexane can not only cause Parkinsonian symptoms, but also seems to lead to an earlier onset of symptoms, and a more difficult to treat disease.
Trichloroethylene, a solvent used as a degreaser and cleaner, causes Parkinson’s so severely that nearly 20% of Parkinson’s patients have been shown to have TCE exposure. Like n-hexane, it also causes an earlier onset of symptoms, and makes the disease more resistant to medication. Trichloroethylene causes dopamine transporter dysfunction as well as severe damage to the mitochondria in neurons.
TCE was widely used by veterans in a variety of specialties, however TCE environmental and water contamination such as the Camp LeJeune contamination means that many vets who wouldn’t normally use trichloroethylene in their duties can become exposed merely by being on base.
Just because the VA does not consider a veteran to have presumed exposure to Agent Orange doesn’t mean that your Parkinson’s wasn’t caused by your service, or that your claim is unwinnable. You just need the right research team on your side!