Disease risk high near toxic waters
By Jim Lynch
Published February 19, 2008
More than a dozen Michigan communities in the Great Lakes basin show higher than normal rates of health problems, according to a federal report that has been withheld over concerns about how it was conducted. The study, conducted by a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says there are higher rates of infant mortality, cancer and other health problems in the 25 former hazardous waste sites that still register high levels of contamination.
Thirteen of those areas -- dubbed areas of concern -- are in Michigan. CDC officials cite problems with the methodology of the study, but some scientists who say the study is valid accuse the agency of a cover-up.
"I think it's being held up because it raises some very serious health problems that are hard to deal with. And dealing with them will be very expensive," said David O. Carpenter, a professor of environmental health and technology at the University of Albany in New York who was part of the peer review process on the study.
The controversy over the report comes at the same time a U.S.-Canada group that oversees water boundary issues between the two countries expressed disappointment in both governments' efforts to manage water quality in the Great Lakes Basin.
Researchers with the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry compiled health and pollution data from county, state and federal databases in 26 areas of concern in the United States. The data was compared to communities with similar demographics.
According to the report, the areas of concern in Michigan are: the Clinton River, Deer Lake, the Detroit River, the Kalamazoo River, the Manistique River, River Raisin, the Rouge River, Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River, the St. Clair River, St. Marys River, Torch Lake in Houghton County and White Lake. In Metro Detroit counties, researchers found a variety of health concerns, including:
• Wayne County registered high rates of infant mortality, black infant mortality, neonatal infant mortality, low birth weight, premature births, as well as deaths from breast cancer, colon cancer, coronary heart disease, lung cancer and strokes.
• Oakland County registered higher than average incidents of black infant mortality.
• Macomb County registered high in white infant mortality and deaths from breast cancer, colon cancer, coronary heart disease and lung cancer.
CDC officials could not be reached for comment Monday. A posting on the federal agency's Web site says they have "serious concerns about research methods used in the draft Great Lakes report that has recently been circulated publicly ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) has been working to correct the identified deficiencies and hopes to finalize the report for release in the spring of 2008."
The report does not suggest a causal relationship between any environmental contaminants and local health issues.
The report catalogued more than 100 hazardous waste sites and listed 71 as having a "potential human health impact." Two of the 71 were classified as urgent public health hazards, 29 as public health hazards and 40 as indeterminate public health hazards.
Urgent public health hazards are those where less than a year of exposure can lead to adverse health effects. A public health hazard creates adverse health effects after more than a year of exposure.
Researchers found "rates of disease beyond the norm" in all 25 areas, including:
• 21 areas with elevated infant mortality rates.
• 6 areas with low birth weights.
• 7 areas with high incidences of breast cancer.
• 16 areas with elevated colon cancer risk.
The reasons behind the delay in releasing the report were further muddled this fall when Chris De Rosa, who served as the director of the CDC's Toxicology and Environmental Medicine agency since 1991, was reassigned. The move came after De Rosa raised concerns over the withholding of the Great Lakes report.
De Rosa stands by his data collection methods and says the document was reviewed by eight state health departments, all affected local county health departments, community groups that work in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency in the areas of concern, scientists comprising an external peer review group and 200 researchers from the U.S. and Canada.
"Some people (within CDC) felt that relying on county health statistics would somehow misrepresent what the concerns are," De Rosa said. "If anything, it helped produce a more conservative estimate of the problem."
Despite the health issues raised by the report, few in Metro Detroit knew of the report.
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, represents the area around the Clinton River. Last week, she said she was unaware of the study until only recently and was unsure why the study has been withheld.
"As I understand that, from the CDC, they're not satisfied with the way they performed the study, that some of it may be flawed," she said. "If that's the case, then I can understand not wanting to release it until it's ready.
"But if the CDC knows there are some real problems, they had better be releasing that information as quickly as they can."
Thomas Kalkofen, director of the Macomb County Health Department, said if information in the report can shed light on important issues, it should be brought out in the open.
"If it's available to that agency, it should also be available for public consumption," he said.
The International Joint Commission, which deals with water boundary issues between the U.S. and Canada, called for the study in 2001. Michael Gilbertson, a researcher in Canada, worked as a regional biologist for the organization at that time, and was among those who reviewed the report data back in 2004.
Now retired from the IJC, Gilbertson said on Monday he feels the report is being delayed because U.S. government officials fear the public may draw conclusions about the relationships between industrial pollution and its effects on residents in the Great Lakes basin.
"There is a real reluctance to talk about effects," he said. "You can talk all you want about sources and concentrations, but you can't talk about effects. Effects connote damage. Damage connotes liability. Liability connotes damages and costly cleanup."
"I think the authors of that study were being very careful not to say industrial pollution had health impacts," Carpenter said. "But the evidence that's been produced is so strong, you can't help but come to that conclusion."
On Monday IJC officials raised concerns over the U.S. and Canadian governments' failure to update the Great Lakes Water Quality agreement since 1987. With many indicators pointing to trouble for the lakes on various fronts, an overhaul of the agreement promoting water quality is long overdue, they said.
You can reach Jim Lynch at (586) 468-0520 or email@example.com.