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October 31, 1998, 10:10 p.m.

'This is a medical crime, basically'
Air Force withheld data, altered Agent Orange study, paper says

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (AP) -- The U.S. military withheld information about possible links between Agent Orange and birth defects for years, and downplayed the defoliant's link to cancer among Vietnam War veterans, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported today.

The newspaper conducted a six-month investigation into a $200 million Air Force study, which began in 1979 and has been a key factor in denying compensation to some veterans.

It is unclear how many people suffer from the effects of Agent Orange, which was sprayed over wide swaths of jungle by U.S. planes during a 10-year period to strip away cover from North Vietnamese troops and their resupply convoys.

The study tracks the health of about 1,000 veterans who participated in Operation Ranch Hand, a series of Air Force missions that sprayed defoliants over 3.6 million acres of South Vietnam. The study is scheduled to conclude in 2006.

As part of the Ranch Hand study, Air Force scientists in 1984 drafted two reports. According to the newspaper, information from the first report was withheld for years; the other was published but its findings altered, the newspaper said.

"This is a medical crime, basically," said Richard Albanese, a scientist who designed the original study but was later taken off the project. "Certainly, this is against all medical ethics."

The withheld report focused on birth defects and infant deaths, showing high rates of both among children of Vietnam veterans, the newspaper said.

Language in the second report, which focused on veterans' general health, was altered to show little difference between the studied veterans and a comparison group, according to the newspaper.

A table in the second report showed Ranch Hand veterans by a ratio of 5-to-1 were "less well" than other veterans. But after a White House advisory panel reviewed the report, the table was omitted in the published report, and the lead scientist, Col. George Lathrop, deleted a sentence saying some of the findings were "of concern" and instead wrote the findings were "reassuring."

Lathrop told the Union-Tribune that the changes were minor. "Fundamentally, the advisory group felt that we were too liberal on the interpretation," Lathrop said.

The Air Force in 1987 conceded in a letter to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., that the 1984 report on cancer and birth defects might be incorrect. In 1988, under Daschle's urging, a report was released containing some details left out of the published 1984 report. But it wasn't until 1992 that the Air Force released data on birth defects, information that was in the withheld report from 1984.

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