By CRG Staff
Blood spotsThe state of Texas has for years collected drops of blood from newborns in order to screen for birth defects. The baby's heel is pricked and five drops of blood are collected on a card, which is thrown out shortly after the screening.

Except when it isn't.

Without ever notifying parents, the Texas Department of State Health Services changed its policy in 2002. First it simply stopped discarding the blood samples after screening for birth defects. Then, with 800,000 samples coming in each year, the state began warehousing the cards at Texas A&M University. The DNA samples were ostensibly to be used for research purposes, but as The Texas Tribune reported earlier this year, 800 de-identified samples were also sent to be included in the creation of a national mtDNA forensics database, a $1.9 million project initiated by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL).

In research proposals dug up by the Tribune, the intention emerged to build an international mtDNA database to advance anti-terrorism investigations. While a large forensic DNA database already exists in the U.S., mtDNA is especially valuable, as it is easier to find and extract than nuclear DNA. AFDIL indicated that it was seeking anonymous mtDNA samples in order to increase the sample size of its budding database.

Scientists insist that mtDNA samples can be fully de-identified so that the sample can never be traced back to the individual who gave it; yet all parties involved in using the newborn samples for the AFDIL database-DSHS, AFDIL, and Texas A&M-neglected to make public note of the project, and in fact made specific efforts to keep it under the radar. DSHS emails revealed state officials' concerns that only bad publicity could come of press about the project, and the agency convinced Texas A&M to pull a press release announcing their partnership.

Researchers also made it clear that their work would go more smoothly if the DNA collection were kept under wraps. As the Tribune notes: "The problem ... is that scientists have used the public's unease with the subject as an excuse not to talk about it."

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