By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008
CHICAGO -- The lead author and peer reviewers of a government report raising the possibility of public health threats from industrial contamination throughout the Great Lakes region are charging that the report is being suppressed because of the questions it raises. The author also alleges that he was demoted because of the report.
Chris De Rosa, former director of the division of toxicology and environmental medicine at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), charges that the report he wrote was a significant factor in his reassignment to a non-supervisory "special assistant" position last year.
The House Committee on Science and Technology is investigating De Rosa's reassignment, in light of allegations that it was related to the Great Lakes report and his push to publicize the possibility of a cancer risk from formaldehyde fumes in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers housing victims of Hurricane Katrina.
De Rosa said his agency cited the Great Lakes report being below expectations as one of the reasons for his removal from the post he had held since 1992. The ATSDR is housed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC spokesman Glen Nowak said he could not discuss personnel issues.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative group, has obtained a copy of the draft report and posted portions on its Web site.
Nowak said that there was no set date for publication, and that the release was delayed to address concerns raised by the Environmental Protection Agency and other reviewers last summer.
"Unfortunately the draft (De Rosa) thought was final wasn't provided to the senior scientists and managers of ATSDR until about a week or two before he thought it would be published," Nowak said. "At that point, very senior people not typically in the review process got a copy and had some significant questions and concerns."
Among those concerns was the use of county health data covering a much wider area than locations adjacent to contaminated sites. "Those concerns had been raised previously but did not appear to have been addressed by De Rosa," Nowak said.
Michael Gilbertson, an Ontario biologist who peer-reviewed the report, said political motives are behind the delay.
"This information, which really should have been distributed more than a year ago, is inconvenient to the administration," Gilbertson said. "All science has limitations, but to stress the limitations at the expense of getting this kind of information out to the research community is not in the public interest at all."
The report does not purport to allege cause-and-effect relationships between discharges and disease. But it uses material from government databases to describe toxic contaminants and releases in the Great Lakes region and looks at health indicators, including cancer incidence and infant mortality, in the surrounding counties compared with those in "peer counties" with similar socioeconomic indicators.
The ATSDR initiated the report in 2001 at the request of the International Joint Commission, an independent body that advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on Great Lakes water use and quality issues. In 2000, the Canadian government released a similar report on 17 areas of concern in Canada.
"You can't make cause-and-effect conclusions based on this kind of material, but you can raise questions," said peer reviewer Peter Orris, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Portions of the report posted on the Center for Public Integrity's Web site say that of more than 100 hazardous waste sites surveyed, two pose "urgent public health hazards" that could cause health problems with less than a year of exposure and 29 pose "public health hazards" that could cause problems with more than a year of exposure.
Among the contaminants logged at different sites are now-banned DDT, as well as PCBs, mercury, lead, cyanide and dioxins.
Breast, lung and colon cancer, as well as infant mortality, were found to be above expected levels near many of the contaminated sites.
The report estimates that 230,000 "vulnerable" people -- defined as children younger than 6, the elderly and reproductive-age women -- live within one mile of contaminated sites in the Great Lakes region, mostly around Lake Michigan.
Spots highlighted include the Fox River in Wisconsin, which continues to be a major source of contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls, though the release of PCBs stopped in 1970; the Cuyahoga River; and Presque Isle Bay, where 50 deteriorating hazardous waste drums are buried.