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CDC Blocks Report On Environmental Hazards In Great Lakes States

(Beyond Pesticides, February 13, 2008) The publication of a federal study undertaken by the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) has been blocked for more than seven months because it contains “alarming information” of evidence of elevated infant mortality and cancer rates in the region surrounding the Great Lakes.The report entitled, Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern, was commissioned by the International Joint Commission (IJC), an independent organization that advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on the use and quality of boundary waters between the two countries, and compiled by the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report outlines the “areas of concern” in which more than nine million people in major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, face higher health risks from exposure to dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, lead, mercury, or six other hazardous pollutants.Contributors to the report include senior experts from the Environmental Protection Agency, CDC, universities, as well as federal and state researchers. These experts have been reviewing data since 2004 and have found low birth weights, elevated rates of infant mortality and premature births, and elevated death rates from breast cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer in the region.The 400-page report was due to be released in July 2007 but was withdrawn by the ATSDR just days before it was to be published. The ATSDR claimed that it needed further review and that the quality of the report was  “well below expectations.” However, Peter Orris, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago and one of the experts who reviewed the study for ATSDR, acknowledged that the study does not determine cause and effect, but, he said, “[I]t raises very important questions….[N]ot to release it is putting your head under the sand.”

In December 2007, Dr. Orris wrote a letter to the ATSDR asking for the report to be released. His letter states: “This report, which has taken years in production, was subjected to independent expert review by the IJC’s Health Professionals Task Force and other boards, over 20 EPA scientists, state agency scientists from New York and Minnesota, three academics (including myself), and multiple reviews within ATSDR. As such, this is perhaps the most extensively critiqued report, internally and externally, that I have heard of.”

Since the report’s failure to launch, several officials, including members of Congress, have expressed concern over what seems to be “the appearance of censorship of science and distribution of factual information regarding the health status of vulnerable communities.” In February 2008, members of Congress, including Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology, Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina, chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the Science and Technology Committee, and Rep. Nick Lampson of Texas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, wrote the CDC’s director demanding an explanation as to why the report was being withheld. Sources involved with the report say that the study has been suppressed because it suggests that industrial pollutants have harmed vulnerable populations, which ultimately implies liability and costs of remedial action.

The letter goes on to further express concern over what appears to be retaliation against an ATSDR official who blew the whistle on the suppression of the report. “The public is well served by federal employees willing to speak up when federal agencies act improperly, and Congress depends upon whistle blowers for effective oversight,” the letter states. “We will not tolerate retaliation against any whistle blowers.” The official, Dr. Christopher De Rosa, a highly respected scientist who has a strong international reputation from his 15 years in charge of ATSDR’s division of toxicology and environmental medicine and who oversaw the study, was demoted after pressing for its release. He is currently seeking reinstatement to his former position.

The study reviewed data from hazardous waste sites, toxic releases, and discharges of pollutants and also, for the first time, mapped the locations of schools, hospitals, and other facilities to assess the proximity of vulnerable populations to the sources of environmental contaminants. One former administrator from the ATSDR noted, “This research is quite important to the public health of people who reside in that area. It was done with the full knowledge and support of IJC, and many local health departments went through this in various reviews. I don’t understand why this work has not been released; it should be and it must be released.”

Source: The Center for Public Integrity




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