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Agent Orange investigation, nearly quarter century old, is ending

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) _ Government health advisers debated Thursday what should be done with data and other material generated by a 24-year federal study of the health effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

The study involving thousands of Air Force veterans who served during the Vietnam War is set to end at the end of the month, at least partially closing another chapter on the war.

Congress has designated the Medical Follow-up Agency, an agency of the independent Institute of Medicine, as the future custodian of the study material. Legislation authorizing the transfer is pending in the House and Senate.

The ``Ranch Hand'' study, named for the Agent Orange spraying operation in Vietnam, ends Sept. 30. It has found elevated risk for diabetes among ``Ranch Handers,'' but no clear link to cancer.

The study included about 3,000 people _ 1,000 ``Ranch Handers'' along with 2,000 other Air Force personnel who were not involved in the spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange.

The U.S. military sprayed some 11 million gallons of the defoliant over the jungles of southern and central Vietnam to expose enemy supply lines, sanctuaries and bases from 1962 to 1971.

Airmen were exposed to Agent Orange during spraying flights, while loading the chemical onto the aircraft and while performing maintenance on the aircraft and the equipment for spraying.

Agent Orange contains dioxin, a cancer-causing byproduct that has been linked to medical ailments in both U.S. war veterans and their Vietnamese counterparts.

At the last public meeting Thursday of the Food and Drug Administration's Ranch Hand Advisory Committee, Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at the Vietnam Veterans of America, testified in favor of the Medical Follow-up Agency taking over the material.

``We do believe firmly that they're fair, that they're honest, that they're institutions and individuals of unimpeachabe integrity,'' Weidman told the committee.

A report earlier this year by the Institute of Medicine stressed the future research of the study data and biological specimens to researchers and scientists. Besides the Medical Follow-up Agency, that report also suggested research institutions in Boston and Seattle as possible custodians of the material.
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