Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Officials supposed to protect public near toxic sites deny risks

By Rita Beamish
updated 12:59 p.m. ET, Wed., March. 11, 2009

The federal agency charged with protecting the public near toxic pollution sites often obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis and fails to zero in on toxic culprits, congressional investigators and scientists say.

A House investigative report says officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry "deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns."

Local communities have voiced frustration and confusion at findings by the agency that are challenged by outside scientists or are ambiguous about whether people living near industrial pollution or toxic dumps or breathe foul-smelling air have reason to worry.

"Time and time again ATSDR appears to avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities throughout the nation," said the report from the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee.

The health agency declined to comment, saying its director, Howard Frumkin, would address the criticisms when he appears at a hearing before the House science panel Thursday.

By law the health agency, a branch of the Health and Human Services Department, assesses health hazards at polluted sites designated under the Superfund cleanup law, and those of concern to local communities. It frequently faces residents who expect environmental answers for a host of illnesses, which science can't always provide.

But the agency's critics also include some of its own scientists, including toxicologist Christopher De Rosa, who told Congress last year that his bosses minimized the health risk of formaldehyde in trailers provided for survivors of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

Congressional investigators reviewed ATSDR health studies and interviewed scientists and community activists across the country for the House report, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

It accuses Frumkin of letting scientific integrity lag behind political expediency and uncomplicated conclusions. Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., said the problems "threaten the health and safety of the American public. Fixing ATSDR requires a cultural shift of the agency."

David Ozonoff, professor of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health, said ATSDR often produces good work, but added: "They don't always use the latest science and the most up to date information. They don't have enough resources and people and breadth of skills and talent. They don't have the trust of communities."

Ozonoff took issue with aspects of a new draft health assessment for a contaminated neighborhood in Elkhart, Ind., that addressed elevated levels of the degreasing solvent trichloroethylene. The agency appeared to overlook previous studies showing cancer and birth defects can show up at lower exposure levels than the draft report indicated, thus playing down the potential risk in Elkhart, he said.

Among issues raised by other scientists:

* Ronald Hoffman, a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, uncovered a high incidence of a blood cancer in northeast Pennsylvania while working with the health agency's scientists. The research identified an elevated incidence of polycythemia vera, including four cases on a mile-long stretch of road near a former toxic waste company.

Although an abstract by Hoffman and his colleagues said there was significant evidence linking the cancer to environmental causes, agency officials publicly rejected the idea and unsuccessfully pressured Hoffman in 2007 to withdraw from a conference where he was to present the findings.

"I thought they were trying to always increase the hurdles so they could disprove what to me was basically pretty obvious," Hoffman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. Ultimately, after additional analysis, ATSDR agreed that the elevated cases were statistically significant and its scientists joined Hoffman in publishing the findings last month. The agency is now considering additional studies.

* Henry Cole, an environmental consultant and former senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said a four-year study into residents' complaints of foul odors and health ailments near an Ohio waste plant, Perma-fix of Dayton, used insufficient sampling to conclude in December that none of the 100 compounds exceeded safe levels.

Nor did it incorporate lawsuit and regulatory information that could have broadened the result beyond ATSDR's sole recommendation that Perma-fix should check for an odor source and mitigate it if possible. That left residents frustrated. "They come in with a very narrow focus and oftentimes they don't come up with anything" to help the community, Cole said in another interview.

* Randall Parrish, a researcher at the University of Leicester, England, found depleted uranium exposure in 20 percent of residents he tested in Colonie, N.Y., where a company once produced uranium weapons for the military. He recommended that ATSDR revisit the area because its earlier health study, without benefit of his test method, assumed it couldn't detect past exposure or tie it to illness years after the plant closed.

ATSDR replied that the amount in people's bodies would be so small it wouldn't cause a health hazard, so no further work was warranted, the subcommittee report said.

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