An official report on the health scene in the Great Lake states in US has been sought to be suppressed. Activists wonder whether authorities are embarrassed by its findings of elevated rates of lung, colon and breast cancers in that region.
The Great Lakes -- Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario -- and their connecting channels form the largest fresh surface water system on earth.
Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario in Canada are known as the Great Lake states.
The 400-plus-page study, Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern, was undertaken by a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the request of the International Joint Commission, an independent bilateral organization that advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on the use and quality of boundary waters between the two countries.
For more than seven months, the nation's top public health agency has blocked the publication of an exhaustive federal study of environmental hazards in the eight Great Lakes states, reportedly because it contains such potentially "alarming information" as evidence of elevated infant mortality and cancer rates, remarks Sheila Kaplan, reporting for the Center for Public Integrity, a public interest investigative journalism organization.
She says researchers had found low birth weights, elevated rates of infant mortality and premature births, and elevated death rates from breast cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer.
The study was originally scheduled for release in July 2007 by the IJC and the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), but was pulled at the last moment.
Interestingly even as the report was shelved, its lead author, Christopher De Rosa, was removed from the position he had held since 1992.
"Let's say we have a superfund site and we also find elevated risk of leukemia in the county -- is that related? We don't know, but people living in the area can logically argue that we ought to find out," 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.net.
Since 2004, dozens of experts have reviewed various drafts of the study, including senior scientists at the CDC, Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies, as well as scientists from universities and state governments, according to consumeraffairs.com. Orris is just one of the several experts who reviewed the study and who, along with the International Joint Committee in a December letter to the CDC, have called for the report's publication.
He also raised concerns that the publication may have been halted based on orders outside the CDC. Once again, it seems that the Bush administration is trying to shrink government by making sure that a federal agency doesn't do its job-a problem that I wrote about here in a post titled "The FDA-- What Happens When You Starve the Beast." Corporate interests are protected--at the expense of the nation's citizens.
"I have an overall concern with respect to the culture of this administration, which permeates all levels of the scientific wing of the government," Orris said. "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."
"If the messenger doesn't come with the message, no one knows it's there," he added.
In a February 6, 2008, letter to CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding, who's also administrator of ATSDR, a trio of powerful congressional Democrats—including Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology—complained about the delay in releasing the report. The Center for Public Integrity obtained a copy of the letter to Gerberding, which notes that the full committee is reviewing "disturbing allegations about interference with the work of government scientists" at ATSDR. "You and Dr. Frumkin were made aware of the Committee's concerns on this matter last December," the letter adds, "but we have still not heard any explanation for the decision to cancel the release of the report."
Canadian biologist Michael Gilbertson, a former IJC staffer and another of the three peer reviewers, told the Center that the study has been suppressed because it suggests that vulnerable populations have been harmed by industrial pollutants. "It's not good because it's inconvenient," Gilbertson said. "The whole problem with all this kind of work is wrapped up in that word 'injury.' If you have injury, that implies liability. Liability, of course, implies damages, legal processes, and costs of remedial action. The governments, frankly, in both countries are so heavily aligned with, particularly, the chemical industry, that the word amongst the bureaucracies is that they really do not want any evidence of effect or injury to be allowed out there."
The IJC requested the study in 2001. Researchers selected by the ATSDR not only reviewed data from hazardous waste sites, toxic releases, and discharges of pollutants but 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. In March 2004, an official of the IJC wrote to De Rosa to thank him for his role in the study, saying that he was "enthusiastic about sharing this information with Great Lakes Basin stakeholders and governments," and adding, "You are to be commended for your extraordinary efforts."
Unlike his Canadian counterpart, however, the ATSDR's Frumkin seems anything but thankful. De Rosa, a highly respected scientist with a strong international reputation from his 15 years in charge of ATSDR's division of toxicology and environmental medicine, was demoted after he pushed Frumkin to publish the Great Lakes report and other studies. De Rosa is seeking reinstatement to his former position, claiming that Frumkin illegally retaliated against him. Phone calls to ATSDR seeking comment about the pending personnel dispute were not returned, says Kaplan.
"I think this is really pretty outrageous, both to Chris personally and to the report," Dr. David Carpenter, a professor of public health at the State University of New York at Albany and another of ATSDR's peer reviewers, told the Center for Public Integrity.
Some members of Congress have also taken De Rosa's side. That same February 6 letter to Gerberding, which was co-signed by 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, expressed concern that "management may have retaliated against" De Rosa for blowing the whistle on ATSDR's conduct related to this investigation and another involving work on formaldehyde in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "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."
Barry Johnson, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service and a former assistant administrator of ATSDR, told the Center that before he left in 1999 he recommended that the agency investigate the dangers that chemical contaminants might pose to residents of the Great Lakes states.
"This research is quite important to the public health of people who reside in that area," Johnson said of the study. "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. In 37 years of public service, I've never run into a situation like this."
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. She added that the CDC would release the report after the review was completed, in "weeks rather than months."
Burden cited several examples of "discrepancies", 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."
But, as Oneworld.net points out, CDC did not clarify why these issues were not identified until July 2007 despite several years of review.