WASHINGTON -- The Air Force has found the ''strongest evidence to date'' that exposure to Agent Orange is linked to diabetes, improving the chances that Vietnam veterans suffering from the disease will receive compensation.
The Air Force said Wednesday the connection so far is only statistical and is yet to be proved by biological study.
Air Force planes sprayed 11 million gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 to destroy jungle cover for communist supply lines, expose enemy sanctuaries and bases and destroy crops needed to feed enemy troops. The operation was equated by some critics at the time to chemical warfare.
The National Academy of Sciences is reviewing the Air Force study's results and is to report to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will decide whether to add diabetes to the list of diseases presumed linked to Agent Orange exposure. Vietnam veterans with such diseases, including prostate cancer, are eligible for compensation.
Veterans Affairs said a decision on whether diabetes will be ''presumptively'' linked to Agent Orange exposure will be made after a federal review of another study on dioxin and diabetes, due to be completed in May.
The Air Force study found a 47 percent increase in diabetes among veterans with the highest levels of dioxin in their bloodstream. Dioxin is the compound in Agent Orange linked to health effects in laboratory animals. The result is based on 1997 physical examinations of 1,000 Air Force veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the nine years that it was used as a defoliant and crop killer in Vietnam.
Joel Michalek, the lead investigator in the study, told a Pentagon news conference that because studies have not yet explained a biological relation between dioxin and diabetes, the Air Force cannot say conclusively that wartime exposure to Agent Orange is a cause of diabetes.
Still, he said, the latest results provide ''the strongest evidence to date'' that herbicide exposure is associated with diabetes. He said the Air Force knew as far back as 1991 of a statistical link between dioxin and diabetes and has since hardened its data based on additional physical exams of veterans.
In its report, the Air Force said it also found a 26 percent increase in heart disease. The increase was 50 percent among enlisted airmen who served as ground crew for Operation Ranch Hand, the military code name for the spraying campaign.
The ground crew are presumed to have had the greatest exposure to Agent Orange among 1,200 Air Force veterans who were involved in the spraying from 1962 to 1971.
The study found no consistent evidence that Agent Orange is related to cancer.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said Wednesday that the Air Force's conclusion on diabetes and dioxin was long overdue.
''Delayed conclusions like this do not inspire confidence in the government's willingness or ability to conduct the long-range health studies needed to assess the true health effects of military service,'' Shays said.
The Air Force report compared the health of exposed veterans with a ''control group'' of 1,300 other Air Force veterans who served in Vietnam during the same years but had no contact with Agent Orange.
Airmen were exposed to Agent Orange during their spraying flights, in the loading process and while doing maintenance on their aircraft and the spray equipment. The herbicide got its name from the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped. It was one of several types of defoliant used during the war.
On the Net: An executive summary of the Air Force report is available at http://www.brooks.af.mil/AFRL/HED/hedb/afhs/afhs.shtml
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