Researcher alleges VA covered up adverse consequences to toxic exposures

March 13, 2013

A senior epidemiologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs  who resigned in December told a congressional committee Wednesday that the agency has covered up data showing adverse consequences for veterans who were exposed to toxic materials from burn pits and other environmental hazards in Iraq, Afghanistan and the first Gulf War.

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Steven S. Coughlin testified that he resigned from the VA’s Office of Public Health in December “because of serious ethical concerns” about the agency’s conduct, which he said included not releasing study results that point to a connection between environmental exposures and illnesses.

“On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible,” Coughlin said in his  testimony to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs’ oversight and Investigations subcommittee.

Coughlin said during his work studying the relationship between exposure to burn pits and asthma and bronchitis among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, his supervisor told him not to look at data regarding hospitalizations and doctors’ visits.

“When I advised him I did not want to continue as a co-investigator under these circumstances, he threatened me,” Coughlin said.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has directed the Office of Research Oversight to review the allegations, according to the VA.

“Research on the health of Gulf War Veterans has been and continues to be a priority for VA,” the agency said in a statement. “The Department depends on this research to inform our decisions and guide our efforts in caring for Gulf War Veterans. All allegations of malfeasance are taken seriously and are investigated fully.”

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

During the hearing, several speakers said the VA has been slow to clearly acknowledge research that has validated Gulf War illnesses as a serious medical condition.

“There are many examples large and small of the VA minimizing Gulf War illness,” said Lea Steele, a professor of biomedical studies and director of the Veterans Health Research Program at Baylor University.

Victoria Davey, chief officer for the VA’s Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards, told the subcommittee that the department takes the ailment seriously.

“We do not believe it is psychological,” she said.

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Eric Yoder · March 13, 2013