Vetting Agent Orange
by Howard Fienberg
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) reported last year that
exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used in the Vietnam War, might have
caused leukemia in the children of
A large portion of evidence dissipated following the
release of the Agent Orange-leukemia study last year. It turned out that an
Australian study the IOM panel evaluated, which found an association between
Australian veterans of
Unfortunately, the assertion that no association can be found does not differ all that much, scientifically speaking, from their original conclusion. Last year, panel chairman Irva Hertz-Picciotto announced to the media that while there was no firm evidence, new research suggested “some kind of connection.” But the IOM report actually states on page 424 that “Evidence is suggestive of an association between herbicide and the outcome, but limited because chance, bias, and confounding could not be ruled out with confidence.”
It appears that in studies of Agent Orange, “connections” can be pretty tenuous.
In 2000, the IOM announced a connection between
adult-onset diabetes and Agent Orange exposure. The
Although only a few reporters caught on, the IOM report actually said that “the increased risk [of diabetes], if any... appears to be small. The known predictors for diabetes risk family history, physical activity, and obesity continue to greatly outweigh any suggested increased risk from wartime exposure to herbicides.”
What was the reaction of veterans groups when they were told the latest new from the IOM? Were they relieved to know that their constituents’ children were not subject to an increased risk of a terrible disease?
It did not seem that way. Len Selfon, director of benefits programs for Vietnam Veterans of America, told the Associated Press, “Obviously, we're disappointed.”
Why? Because these connections, while statistically
insignificant, are very significant politically. For purposes of
Why such a lengthy list? The VA (and therefore the IOM) evaluates Agent Orange based on “statistical association” rather than causality. The slightest scientific hints can eventually lead to public policy facts.
The VA’s rearguard action against health claims from
former soldiers, giving up ground a little at a time to the scientific
equivalent of supposition and innuendo, sets up the
As of last year, only 8,600 of the 2.3 million surviving
As we have seen with the supposed “Gulf War
Syndrome,” the symptoms and diseases befalling
Soon, we will face a difficult decision as a nation. If we provided health benefits for all veterans, regardless of “presumptive exposure” to something, we could save the integrity of our scientific institutions, prevent future lawsuits, shore up trust in the military and boost the morale of current and future soldiers.
See the original: http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=031102B
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