No funding -- and no plan -- to preserve data, biological specimens gathered in 25-year, $143 million project
By Anne Harding | March 13, 2006
When the Air Force Health Study closes this fall, some scientists fear an invaluable trove of scientific information could be lost. The money runs out on September 30, and there is currently no cash set aside to preserve the 87,000 biological specimens and reams of data collected since the study opened in 1982.
The $143 million project has followed 1,046 veterans who flew defoliant-spraying planes in Operation Ranch Hand and 1,223 veterans also deployed to Southeast Asia who didn't use the pesticide in their duties. In 1978, Congress directed the Air Force to launch the study, with funding from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
"What really makes it valuable is the long-term nature of it," said David Tollerud, chair of the Institute of Medicine committee tasked with making recommendations on the disposition of the study. "An extraordinary amount of data was collected on each and every person, the participation rate was very high, the biological samples that were collected from the very beginning were extraordinary and have been maintained properly over the years."
Some argue that the study may shed light on more questions than it originally set out to answer. "The study has been able to follow thousands of men as they grow older," said Michael Stoto, chairman of the Ranch Hand Advisory Committee, which offers scientific advice on the study and reports to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. "There probably are many kinds of analyses that people can do that go far beyond the original questions that were behind the reason for doing the study," added Stoto, also an adjunct professor of biostatistics at Harvard School of Public Health.
Last month, the IOM committee issued a report urging that funds be set aside to maintain the data and specimens for at least an additional five years. According to IOM, it will take $150,000 to $300,000 annually to maintain the data, and another $200,000 a year to maintain the biological specimens. The institute also recommended that $250,000 be set aside each year for three years to support research using the data.
But, to date, there has been no move by Congress to appropriate additional funds. An Air Force spokesman told The Scientist that Air Force Health Study personnel had begun implementing recommendations made by the IOM committee in a November 2005 interim report on how the data and specimens should be reorganized so other researchers can use them. "The Air Force is exploring the options and addressing them with the Air Force Surgeon General, the Institute of Medicine, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Congress" for how to proceed after the funding ends for the study Sept. 30, he added.
Mary Ellen McCarthy, Democratic staff director for the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, said she would be meeting on the issue with other congressional staff next week. She said her boss, Congressman Lane Evans, the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, supports funding to maintain the Ranch Hand study materials.
The value of the study has long been controversial. "The study is deeply flawed to say the least," said Jeanne Mager Stellman, a professor of public health at Columbia University. For instance, dioxin exposures likely don't represent what soldiers on the ground experienced, she said. The study also includes methodological flaws, including the addition of new people to both control and study groups during the course of the project, she noted. Still, any efforts to make sense of the massive quantities of data collected would be worthwhile, if only because it means $143 million won't be wasted, Stellman noted.
David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, told The Scientist that researchers should continue the study -- an idea the IOM committee did not support -- given the increasing knowledge that dioxin exposure increases the risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes. "It would be extraordinarily shortsighted to have this just come to an end," he said.
Links within this article
Air Force Health Study
B. Calandra, "Uniformed scientists do unique work," The Scientist, November 3, 2003.
Disposition of the Air Force Health Study
R. Lewis, "Rolling back the fog of war," The Scientist, November 22, 2004.
Congressman Lane Evans
Jeanne Mager Stellman