Did the Bush Administration keep public health data secret?
Toxic Gov't Report Uncovered
We trim a 2008 article posted on OneWorld on Feb 8 and show one way to de-politicize pollution.
by Caitlin G. JohnsonA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of environmental and health data in eight Great Lakes states was scheduled for publication in July 2007 but was not made public.
The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism organization, obtained copies of the report and asked why despite several years of study and peer review, it was suddenly pulled back for revision -- and why its lead author, Christopher De Rosa, was removed from the position he held since 1992.
The study, "Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern," was developed by the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at the request of the International Joint Commission, an independent U.S-Canadian organization that monitors and advises both governments on the use and quality of boundary waters.
The findings pointed to elevated rates of lung, colon, and breast cancer; low birth weight; and infant mortality in several of the geographical areas of concern.
The report does not claim to identify cause and effect. Instead, it outlines areas for further study and data collection on the link between pollution and health.
CDC spokesperson Bernadette Burden told OneWorld that the report was held back because internal and external reviewers -- including the Environmental Protection Agency and several state health departments -- identified "numerous discrepancies and deficiencies" and determined a rigorous review was needed.
Burden cited several examples, including the fact that the county-level health data "reflected people's illnesses from 1988 to 1997, while much of the environmental data used in the report came from the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory dated 2001 and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system with 2004 data."
CDC did not clarify why these issues were not identified until July 2007 despite several years of review. A new director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health and ATSDR, Howard Frumkin, was appointed in July 2007, shortly before the report was due to be released.
Compounding the concerns surrounding the report are recent revelations that CDC failed to address toxins in FEMA trailers provided after Hurricane Katrina. CBS News broke the story after it obtained documents sent from Christopher De Rosa to his superiors at CDC warning that the trailers might be unsafe.
De Rosa, who served as director of the Division of Toxicology since 1992, was removed from this position and named special assistant in Frumkin's office -- a position that appears to carry "no real responsibilities" according to a Feb. 2008 letter from members of the Congressional Committee on Science and Technologies to CDC director Julie Gerberding. The letter called the move an apparent retaliation.
In 1998, Canada's federal health department produced reports on the overall health of people living in 17 areas in Ontario, documenting elevated hospitalizations for certain diseases and higher rates of cancer and birth defects.
Only two US Great Lakes states, New York and Illinois, collect the type of data necessary to examine the link between health and environmental toxins.
As many as 9 million people -- including residents of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee -- may be at risk from exposure to pollutants including pesticides, dioxin, PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls), and mercury.
Dr. Peter Orris, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health and one of the peer reviewers of the study, told OneWorld that the publication may have been halted based on orders outside the CDC. "The administration has regularly cut funds so that they don't find statistics that could be potentially politically embarrassing -- for instance, the sampling of toxins in fish in the Great Lakes has been cut way back."
According to Burden, the CDC plans to release the report after the review is completed, in "weeks rather than months." She could not comment about Christopher De Rosa or other personnel matters.
JJS: Part of the problem is public attitude and legal tradition. Victims of toxins have to prove they’ve been poisoned. Perpetrators of toxins need not prove their acts impose no risk. Presently government gives anybody -- polluter or non-polluter -- a corporate charter limiting liability for the same tiny filing fee. That needs to change.
We have made progress. We have litter laws, public sewage systems, recycling centers, and laws against polluting. Let’s make those who choose to put neighbors at risk bear full responsibility for their choice. Charge them for the costs they impose on others.
Then they’d find and use clean and efficient alternatives, such as bio-remediation. The challenge is not technology but psychology. Rather than rely on regulation downstream, make full liability a matter of fundamental policy way upstream; charge full value for corporate charters.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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