Agent Orange research in peril

From: "\"Doc\" Melson" <docmelson@docmelson.com>

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By Sig Christenson
Express-News Staff Writer For more than two decades, Brooks AFB led a
trailblazing study into the health effects of Agent Orange, a herbicide used
during the Vietnam War that some scientists and veterans groups have linked
to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.Now, however, 8 million
documents at the base risk being lost a move that researchers and some in
Congress say would hamper any future research efforts.Unless Congress steps
in with funding, records that include blood and tissue samples will be
returned to thousands of servicemen participating in the Agent Orange study
or destroyed after research concludes in 2006."When the funding is ended, we
will leave these buildings," said Joel Michalek, a Brooks-based researcher
who heads the study. "We don't want to leave those records sitting in boxes
anywhere to threaten anyone's privacy."The Agent Orange study, aka the Air
Force Health Study, began in 1978 and will end in 2006. It tracks the health
of 1,000 war veterans exposed to the defoliant and compares them with a group
of 1,300 Air Force Vietnam veterans not directly affected by the chemical,
which contains dioxin, a cancer-causing agent.Various findings from the study
have been published in some 50 research papers over the years. Except for an
unexplained increase in diabetes among some exposed veterans, the study
failed to find any conclusive link between veterans' health problems and
Agent Orange.Others, however, have found a link. Last week, the Institute of
Medicine reported that the children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange and
other herbicides seem to have a greater chance of developing acute
myelogenous leukemia, although cautioning the link is not conclusive.
Previously, the institute linked herbicide exposure with soft tissue cancer,
Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and chloracne in veterans. The Air
Force sprayed millions of gallons of defoliants over 3.6 million acres of
South Vietnam in 1962-71. The chemicals were designed to kill foliage and
destroy crops used by enemy troops during the eradication effort, dubbed
Operation Ranch Hand.Brooks has led the Air Force study since its inception.
It keeps medical and military records as well as 50,000 blood, urine, semen
and fat specimens in one building on the base.A staff of 35 conducts Agent
Orange-related studies under an annual budget of $4 million to $10 million.If
the Air Force returns or destroys the records and ends the study as planned,
the research wouldn't completely end. But it would be "much diminished,"
Michalek said. Though already-published data would continue to be available,
he said researchers would not have the veterans' records, "so that would
limit their ability to study the issue.""The committee recognizes the
usefulness of the data and recognizes the desirability of continuing
research," Michalek said.Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, supports
continued funding for record storage, saying, "There is no way I would want
that information destroyed."The records' future was a topic of an April 5
Agent Orange advisory committee meeting at the Food and Drug Administration's
headquarters in Rockville, Md.Researchers discussed how the records might be
saved, Michalek said. They reviewed a worst-case scenario, among other
options, in which the records would be returned to veterans or their families
or be destroyed.The committee recommended that the Air Force meet with other
federal agencies to discuss continuing the use of Agent Orange records beyond
2006, Michalek said. Funding would be needed to preserve the records, he
said, as would approval from study participants."There are many conflicting
issues here, all of which need to be resolved by our committee and by other
agencies," Michalek said.The House Veterans Affairs Committee has yet to be
briefed on the issue. But the destruction of the records "would be a matter
of some concern" to committee members, including its chairman, Rep. Chris
Smith, R-N.J., said Dan Amon, a committee spokesman.Rodriguez, a member of
the House Armed Services Committee, said "it just makes sense to preserve the
records.""We spent $160 million on those studies," he said.Agreeing is Rep.
Henry Bonilla, a San Antonio Republican and a member of the House
Appropriations Committee's defense appropriations subpanel."Disposing of the
research will be a great misuse of time and money," Bonilla said. "If there
is an avenue we can take to preserve the study, it should be taken."

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