Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Probe: Federal Agency Ignores Health Hazards"

AP- Officials supposed to protect public near toxic sites deny risks, report says

The federal agency charged with protecting the public near toxic pollution sites often obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis and fails to zero in on toxic culprits, congressional investigators and scientists say.

A House investigative report says officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry "deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns."

Local communities have voiced frustration and confusion at findings by the agency that are challenged by outside scientists or are ambiguous about whether people living near industrial pollution or toxic dumps or breathe foul-smelling air have reason to worry.

"Time and time again ATSDR appears to avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities throughout the nation," said the report from the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee.

The health agency declined to comment, saying its director, Howard Frumkin, would address the criticisms when he appears at a hearing before the House science panel Thursday.

By law the health agency, a branch of the Health and Human Services Department, assesses health hazards at polluted sites designated under the Superfund cleanup law, and those of concern to local communities. It frequently faces residents who expect environmental answers for a host of illnesses, which science can't always provide.

But the agency's critics also include some of its own scientists, including toxicologist Christopher De Rosa, who told Congress last year that his bosses minimized the health risk of formaldehyde in trailers provided for survivors of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

Congressional investigators reviewed ATSDR health studies and interviewed scientists and community activists across the country for the House report, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

It accuses Frumkin of letting scientific integrity lag behind political expediency and uncomplicated conclusions. Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., said the problems "threaten the health and safety of the American public. Fixing ATSDR requires a cultural shift of the agency." ...

Among issues raised by other scientists:

• Ronald Hoffman, a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, uncovered a high incidence of a blood cancer in northeast Pennsylvania while working with the health agency's scientists. The research identified an elevated incidence of polycythemia vera, including four cases on a mile-long stretch of road near a former toxic waste company.

Although an abstract by Hoffman and his colleagues said there was significant evidence linking the cancer to environmental causes, agency officials publicly rejected the idea and unsuccessfully pressured Hoffman in 2007 to withdraw from a conference where he was to present the findings.

• Henry Cole, an environmental consultant and former senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, said a four-year study into residents' complaints of foul odors and health ailments near an Ohio waste plant, Perma-fix of Dayton, used insufficient sampling to conclude in December that none of the 100 compounds exceeded safe levels.

Nor did it incorporate lawsuit and regulatory information that could have broadened the result beyond ATSDR's sole recommendation that Perma-fix should check for an odor source and mitigate it if possible. That left residents frustrated. "They come in with a very narrow focus and oftentimes they don't come up with anything" to help the community, Cole said in another interview.

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