ROCKVILLE, Md. — The government is taking steps to preserve data and biological specimens from a quarter-century investigation into the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans, having found an elevated risk for diabetes but no clear links to cancer from the soon-to-end study.
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The independent Institute of Medicine concluded earlier this year that the material from the Air Force Health Study is valuable and should be preserved and made available to researchers and scientists. That sentiment was seconded Thursday by members of a government panel that has advised the Air Force throughout the study.
"There is value in the material gathered, beyond what already has appeared in publications," said Dr. Michael Stoto, chairman of the Food and Drug Administration's advisory committee on the Air Force Health Study and a professor of health systems administration at Georgetown University.
The meeting was the committee's last. The $140 million health study meets its statutory end Sept. 30, at least partially closing another chapter on the war.
In its report stressing the inherent value of the study data and specimens, the Institute of Medicine recommended one of its agencies — the Medical Follow-up Agency — and research institutions in Boston and Seattle as possible custodians of the material.
Congress has designated the Medical Follow-up Agency as the future custodian of the material, and legislation authorizing the transfer from the Air Force is pending in the House and Senate.
Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at the Vietnam Veterans of America, testified in favor of that agency being the one to oversee the material, citing lack of trust in the government.
"We do believe firmly that they're fair, that they're honest, that they're institutions and individuals of unimpeachable integrity," Weidman said.
Ties to diabetes, but not cancer
The "Ranch Hand" study, begun in 1982 and named for the Agent Orange spraying operation in Vietnam, concludes Sept. 30 having found elevated risk of diabetes among "Ranch Handers," but no clear link to cancer.
In March 2000, an Air Force study confirmed a connection between wartime exposure to Agent Orange and diabetes, a link that Vietnam vets had long suspected.
Air Force officials said the link was statistical and not proven conclusively. But the study found a 47 percent increase in diabetes among veterans with the highest levels of dioxin in their bloodstreams.
It did not, however, find any consistent evidence that Agent Orange is related to cancer.
The overall study involved about 3,000 people — about 1,000 "Ranch Handers" who handled the defoliant or came into contact with it, and about 2,000 other Air Force personnel not involved in the operation.
11 million gallons sprayed in war
The U.S. military sprayed some 11 million gallons of the defoliant over the leafy jungles of southern and central Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 in an effort to expose enemy supply lines, sanctuaries and bases.
Airmen were exposed to the sweet-smelling herbicide during spraying flights, while loading the chemical and while performing maintenance on the aircraft and the spraying equipment.
Agent Orange was named for the orange-striped barrels it was shipped in. It contains dioxin, a cancer-causing byproduct linked to medical ailments in U.S. war veterans and their Vietnamese counterparts.
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