Agent Orange studies to hit the Net this year

The Air Force plans to make available by the year's end all raw data and analysis associated with a study into the health effects of the Agent Orange herbicide used during the Vietnam War. But a congressional study has criticized the service for dragging its feet on making the data available via the Internet and other electronic media.

The Air Force launched the Ranch Hand study in 1982 to examine the long-term health effects experienced by almost 1,300 Air Force personnel who sprayed Agent Orange over the vast jungle areas of Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. Scientists have speculated that a chemical found in Agent Orange, Dioxin, may be responsible for several health problems, including cancer.

However, the Air Force has failed to release all of the results from the 25-year, $140 million study, which is scheduled for completion by 2006, to the public in a user-friendly format — namely, via the Internet or compact disk — according to a recent study by the General Accounting Office.

In the study, GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that in addition to making a relatively small amount of data available through published journals and studies, the Air Force has placed all available data on magnetic tape, rather than "a more common format such as compact disc or the Internet." Scientists who are trying to use the data for additional studies have complained about the lack of access, according to GAO.

The GAO report also raised questions about the cost associated with obtaining the study's results. Currently, scientists working on the Ranch Hand study send data via disk to the Defense Technical Information Center, which transfers it to magnetic tape and sends it to the National Technical Information Service at the Department of Commerce. NTIS then sells it to the public at a cost of $450.

In comparison, a major database maintained by the National Cancer Institute is available on CD free of charge, according to GAO. Likewise, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention can be purchased for $20 from the Government Printing Office, the report stated.

The Pentagon's official response to the GAO study was submitted by Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Neal, chief of Occupational Medicine with the Air Force Medical Operations Agency. He stated that a detailed schedule of future data releases to the public will be made available this month on the research office's World Wide Web site. Neal also said "additional technologies are currently being studied in an effort to make the data more accessible to the public, e.g. CD-ROM."

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