.News Update 3/13/09

Federal Agency Found to Minimize Community Health Concerns

March 13, 2009

An investigative report recently released by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight clearly states concerns with the quality of work done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The report cites specific examples of hasty and incomplete assessments, noting that "time and time again [the Agency] appears to avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities throughout the nation."

The Agency, which is a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, was created in 1980 in accordance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as "Superfund." Its purpose is to assess the health hazards at polluted Superfund sites and those hazards of concern to local communities. Its mission is to "serve the public by using the best science, taking responsive public health actions, and providing trusted health information to prevent harmful exposures and disease related to toxic substances."

However, from the very beginning, the effectiveness of the Agency was undermined by staffing cuts. In trying to prove its own usefulness, the Agency rushed through 950 site assessments in the space of just two years. A total of 785 site assessments were conducted in 15 months, and the remaining 165 were relabeled as previously prepared documents that already existed in the Agency's files. The Subcommittee reported that the Agency "developed a check-box mentality that helped to undermine virtually everything (they) did. Quality became an afterthought to the ability to produce public health documents quickly."

Even now critics recognize that the Agency's studies lack the ability to properly attribute illness to toxic exposures and their methods of identifying suspected environmental exposures to hazardous chemicals are lacking in effectiveness as well. One of the Agency scientists noted, "It seems like the goal is to disprove the communities' concerns rather than actually trying to prove exposures."

The House investigative report looked at health studies and conferred with scientists and community activists across the country. One example cited in the report was the work of Professor Randall Parrish, a researcher at the University of Leicester, England. Dr. Parrish investigated exposure to depleted uranium through inhalation in the community of Colonie, New York, which is the location of National Lead. From 1958 to 1984, it once produced uranium weapons for the military. He found depleted uranium exposure in 100 percent of the workers and 20 percent of residents he tested. He also found soil contamination miles from the site. Parrish recommended that the Agency take another look at the community because its 2004 health study assumed that the depleted uranium levels could not be detected and the illnesses could not be tied to the closed plant. Parrish, working with researchers with the University of Albany, used a new test method that revealed the exposures. As reported by the Congressional Subcommittee, the Agency responded by saying that the amount of depleted uranium was so small, no health hazard would result and therefore, no further work was needed.

Howard Frumkin, head of the Agency, responded to the criticisms by saying that the Agency is reviewing its mission and seeking ways to better employ advances in chemical science, as well as working through better ways to communicate health risks to the public.

To Sal Mier, a former government health official now located in Midlothian, Texas, a community affected by the Agency's poor assessments, these reevaluations and changes can't come soon enough. He said, "To maintain the status quo will only continue risking the public health of many U.S. communities."

To read the full Committee on Science and Technology report, please visit http://science.house.gov/publications/caucus_detail.aspx?NewsID=2388.

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