WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs Department has granted only 6 percent of health claims filed by veterans of secret Cold War chemical and germ warfare tests conducted by the Pentagon, according to figures obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.

Veterans advocates called the number appallingly low.

By comparison, about 88 percent of processed claims from Gulf War vets were granted as of last year, according to VA documents. More than 90 percent of processed claims from Iraq and Afghanistan vets were granted as of earlier this year.

In a statement the VA said it was "incorrect" to make such comparisons because of the unique circumstances of different groups of veterans.

During the tests thousands of service members were exposed, often without their knowledge, to real and simulated chemical and biological agents, including sarin and VX. Deseret News investigations in the 1990s disclosed the tests after sailors who participated in at-sea portions of the trials asked for help.

The tests were conducted at sea and above a half-dozen U.S. states from 1962-1973 to see how U.S. ships would withstand chemical and germ assaults and how such weapons would disperse.

The Defense Department says 6,440 service members took part in the experiments called Project 112 and Project SHAD, and 4,438 veterans have been notified of their participation. Others could not be located or have died.

As of May, the VA had processed 641 claims filed by veterans of the tests, many of whom are suffering from cancer, respiratory problems or other ailments.

Thirty-nine of the claims were granted, 56 were pending and 546 were denied.

AP obtained the figures from the VA on Thursday following a congressional hearing on the issue last week.

An agency spokeswoman had no immediate comment on why the rate of granting the claims was so low.

"These numbers are shocking, disgraceful and disappointing and reflect poorly on VA," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.

"This is ridiculous," said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "These guys were there. They all have cancer. Take care of them."

Filner's committee last week held a hearing on legislation by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., that would grant coverage to project veterans without them having to prove a link between their problems and their participation in Projects SHAD/112.

The bill is patterned after legislation passed in 1991 to help people exposed to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used by U.S. forces in Vietnam that was linked to cancer and other ailments

Filner said he hoped to vote the bill out of his committee by July 4.

The VA and Pentagon both oppose the bill, arguing that there's no clear scientific evidence linking the Project SHAD/112 experiments to the illnesses veterans are experiencing.

The Pentagon only began to disclose details of the tests in 2001, after pressure from veterans and lawmakers. Two years later Defense officials stopped looking for additional project participants, despite criticism from the Government Accountability Office, which said untold number of veterans and civilians could remain unaware of their potential exposure.