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Researchers seek to save Agent Orange archive

They lack funding to keep specimens

SAN ANTONIO -- Thousands of small, white boxes containing samples of blood, serum, and urine are all that remain of a 25-year, $143 million program to find out if the herbicide Agent Orange made Vietnam War veterans sick.

But while the Agent Orange study is over, government researchers say the collection of 86,000 biological samples and medical records is too valuable to be thrown away. They say it might be the beginning of what could be learned from the Air Force's vast collection of biological samples and medical records.

Few other studies have followed such a large group of people over such an extended period of time.

However, while Congress has ordered the Agent Orange records saved, it hasn't appropriated any new money to pay for storing and protecting the samples, which must be kept at ultra-low temperatures, and the vast paper records. Funding runs out Sept. 30.

"From a practical point of view, that is the most detailed info on a cohort of this size," said Joel Michalek, who began work on the study in 1978 and later became the principal investigator. "There is an enormous amount of detail and completeness to that data set."

Without money to store the 86,000 samples, they will have to be destroyed, said David Butler, senior program officer for the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine.

"That's something we absolutely don't want to do," he said.

The Air Force began studying the effects of Agent Orange in 1979 after service members complained of getting sick from the herbicide sprayed on the Vietnamese jungle to destroy foliage that provided cover along key roads and waterways.

Operation Ranch Hand sprayed at least 12 million gallons of Agent Orange, giving the pilots and crew members some of the highest and most consistent exposure to the herbicide, nicknamed for the orange band on the barrels in which it was stored .

Nearly 2,800 men gave detailed information and biological samples for the study over 20 years. Full medical exams -- including collection of blood, urine, and semen samples -- were conducted five times during the study, and most participants stuck with the study even though it required them and their families to give detailed information about their habits and medical conditions.

"The participation has been absolutely amazing, things other researchers might be envious of," said Julie Robinson, the transition manager overseeing the end of the study at Brooks City-Base, the technology and research complex formerly known as Brooks Air Force Base.