PURELY FOR political reasons, the administration decided last week to do the careful medical studies of the residents of Love Canal that should have been done two years ago. The ostensible scientific reason was a study of chromosomal damage that, in the opinion of independent experts, "provides inadequate basis for any scientific or medical inferences . . . even of a tentative or preliminary nature."
This is not the first time that government has done the right thing for the wrong reasons. But because Love Canal is certainly going to be followed by many other chemical disasters, the way it wasand is being handled deserves the same kind of close scrutiny that was given to what went wrong at THREE mile Island.
The volume of improperly buried chemicals around the country is unknown, but the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the 30,000 or so chemical dumps, 1,200 to 2,000 may contain significant quantities of hazardous wastes. Even if the amount were known, the likely health effects would still be impossible to predict. Toxicology -- the study of poisons and their effects -- isa young and uncertain science. Since most environmentally caused cancers are believed to appear 20 to 25 years after exposure, the effects of the huge expansion of the chemical industry that began about two decades ago may be just beginning to appear.
Because these health effects are bothpotentially so large and so uncertain, every opportunity to study them must be exploited. Therefore the government's long delay in testing the residents of Love Canal is questionable on more grounds than human compassion. The problem seems to have been that the agency in charge -- EPA -- was not equipped with either the congressionally defined mission or the necessary money to do the basic scientific research.
Worse, since it bears the responsibility for cleaning up chemical dumps and regulatiing those who generate the wastes, EPA has a built-in conflict of interest. The fundamentally flawed chromosome research project that caused this week's uproar is a perfect example of the kind of problem such conflicts create. The study was designed to provide evidence for the government's suit against Hooker Chemical, rather than scientific understanding. It is very unlikely that such a flawed design would ever have been commissioned by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, the Center for Disease Control or one of several other branches of HEW whose primary mission is health research.
Congress must decide which agency or group of agencies should be made explicitly responsible for scientific and medical studies in the aftermath of hazardous waste accidents. Agencies whose primary responsibility is research or public health, with no conflicting regulatory responsibilities, should be given a leading role. An essential part of this effort -- in order to avoid the back-and-forthing between EPA and New York State that caused so much delay at Love Canal -- will be to define clearly the respective roles of state and federal government in future emergencies.