Life has been an emotional roller coaster for the people of the Love Canal toxic waste dump area in New York, and it is not over yet.
First, a government study told them in May that they might have suffered chromosome damage. Then reviews of that study told them to relax, that the study was not worth much. Now another review is about to tell them that the initial report was correct.
The residents can hardly be blamed for their lack of faith in government, and it is all very embarrassing to the bureaucrats and scientists who, after two years of agonizing about the situation at Love Canal, finally seem to be acting on what they have learned.
The story of how it all happened is a classic Washington tale of turf struggles mixed with questions of deadlines, professional ethics, ineptitude and things just falling through the cracks.
The original chromosome study was done by Dr. Dante Picciano of Biogenics Corp. in Houston. Picciano's work was immediately attacked by other scientists as poorly done and incorrect. Now, a new review by the respected cell geneticist Dr. Margery Shaw, director of the University of Texas Medical Genetics Center in Houston, concludes that Picciano was right after all.
In addition, Dr. Martin Legator, an environmental toxicologist hired by Hooker Chemical Co. to review Picciano's findings, said the results "will stand up to any scrutiny." Hooker is the company that put the wastes in the dump during the 1940s and 1950s.
In a letter to be published soon in Science magazine, Shaw affirms the findings Picciano announced in May: there are fragmented and damaged chromosomes in some of the blood samples taken in January from 36 residents of the Love Canal area. "The abnormalities are there," she said in an interview. "I would call it a very high frequency."
Shaw, whom several scientists called an outstanding professional, joined Picciano in cautioning that neither the cause nor the effect of the damaged genetic material can be known now, and that much more study is needed.
But her defense of Picciano's work in Science is important because the influential magazine said in its June news section that the report had been "discredited" and had "close to zero scientific siginificance."
Editors there refused to comment, but it is understood that the entire issue will be discussed again in the news pages when Shaw's letter appears.
Shaw stressed that chromosome breaks by themselves mean nothing. "One will never be able to equate them in a blood cell with a clubfoot in a child. One cannot make leaps like that," she said.
But that is just the sort of leap the residents of Love Canal made in May after learning of Picciano's results. Their fight and outrage ended two years of government dithering. A state of emergency was declared, and they were moved out, but the government agonizing was not over yet.
Picciano's firm was only 5 months old when the call came in January asking him to do a pilot study on the chromosomes of Love Canal residents.
The call was from the Environmental Protection Agency. Concerned that people were still living over Love canal two years after its dangers had become known, the Epa's enforcement division was looking for a way to get the courts to order Hooker Chemical to move the residents out.
Justice Department attorneys looked over EPA's reports on the place and decided more evidence was needed on possible danger to people at the site. Neither EPA or Justice was aware that just such evidence had been reported the previous year.
In 1978, the New York State Health Department had taken a 22-page health questionnaire from 2,600 Love Canal area residents, getting consent from them to let the results -- but not the raw data -- be evaluated by other officials.
A panel of scientists headed by Dr. David Rall, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, had found the results so impressive that HEW put out a news release on it.
Dated July 26, 1979, the release said Rall's group had found increased miscarriages, birth defects and various chronic diseases among the Love Canal residents "as a consequence of exposure to a chemically contaminated environment."
It recommended "that these exposures be minimized to the extent feasible" while study continued. Comparison with "control groups," persons not exposed to the chemicals, should be made at once, it said.
EPA and Justice knew about the questionnaires, but the right people did not know about the Rall review, according to sources in both places. "This whole thing might have turned out differently if we'd had that," one said.
But they didn't. EPA therefore reached again for health effects evidence that HEW already had, asking through a standing research contract at Texas Tech University in Lubbock for Picciano, who had worked before on EPA studies.
"He was our first choice," said Charles Morgan of EPA's hazardous waste enforcement task force. The idea, Morgan said, was to get a pilot analysis of blood chromosomes to see whether that area would be fruitful for a larger study and more conclusive evidence later.
"They told me they wanted results as soon as possible. That was their prime interest," Picciano recalled in an interview. "They wanted a preliminary study on whether the people at Love Canal had chromosome damage."
Picciano suggested in a series of telephone conferences that he tested 25 area residents and 25 control subjects who had not been exposed to the Love Canal wastes. The use of controls, who are treated exactly the same as test subjects except in regard to the area under study, is considered crucial to exactness in science.
There was resistance to testing a control group, Picciano said. "They said it would take twice as long." He also got the impression, he said, that the EPA negotiators were also concerned about the cost, although it was not mentioned directly.
Morgan and three other EPA officials agree that they wanted the study done as quickly as possible, but insist that there was no opposition to having a control group. They told Picciano to go ahead.
Under the impression that he would be studying controls later, Picciano said, he and Beverly Paigen of Roswell Park Memorial Park Institute of New York selected 36 Love Canal subjects and took blood samples in January. EPA asked him to do those slides right away "and if you see any aberations then come up and do the controls," Picciano said.
He went back to Houston with the slides, thinking EPA would call him back with authorization for the controls, which would double his $11,000 contract. "I never heard back from them until a month later," Picciano said. c
At EPA, meanwhile, officials thought controls had already been authorized. "It was assumed . . . but there was a breakdown in communications, and that is not the way the work documents actually placing the order finally read," said Dr. Vilma Hunt, EPA's deputy assistant administrator for research and development. "It fell through the cracks."
The work order called for comparing Love Canal results with other test subjects from previous Picciano reports, and that was what Picciano finally did. In the meantime, he assumed that EPA had lost interest, since he hadn't heard from anyone. When his technician gave him the final results, he recalled, "I let it sit in my desk for three weeks before I looked at it . . . then I said, Oh my God, we've got problems!"
He sent summaries to EPA May 5 and 14. There were eight samples with "supernumerary acentric chromosomes," extra chromosomes without centers, where only one in 100 normal people would show that, he said. The summary noted that it was a pilot study and that there were no controls. "I knew how it would be attacked," Picciano said.
The report was leaked to The New York Times on May 17, spurring EPA to inform Love Canal residents that day about the study results. The scientific community began to criticize it almost immediately.
Without controls, said New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey and state Health Commissioner, David Axelrod, the report was highly questionable. National Institute of Health official Dr. Robert S. Gordon deplored the lack of controls and said testing the most severely exposed Love Canal residents had biased the study toward finding problems.
Rall of NIEHS organized a panel of eight scientists to give Picciano's study the customary peer review, but Picciano and Rall were unable to agree on the composition of the panel, and thegroup never saw Picciano's slides. It reported that the study "does not provide definitive evidence" for health damage.
Picciano produced a favorable review by his friend and former boss, cytogeneticist Jack Kilian of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, but more attention was paid to an EPA panel which reported June 12 that it found no evidence of damage.
That panel, headed by Dr. Roy E. Albert, chairman of the New York University Medical Center, did not see the slides either, but relied on photo copies of a photocopy of pictures of the preparations. Albert's report said the panel "did not think it useful" to see the slides, since the absence of controls would make further checks meaningless.
All the while, Legator's report to Hooker Chemical supporting Picciano had not been made public, though, as director of environmental toxicology at the University of Texas medical branch at Galverston, he is regarded as well-qualified.
Hooker will say little about Love Canal, contending that the issue will have to be settled in court. Legator only recently broke his silence. Criticisms of Picciano's technique, he said, are "a lot of bunk."
The overall public reaction, echoed in Science, was that EPA and Justice, trying for quick results, had gone after a quick and dirty study outside EPA's field and had scared people needlessly, hurt the case against Hooker Chemical and given the entire government a black eye.
In the view of several people at EPA and Justice, the government already had a black eye from not moving sooner. "Nobody wanted to get involved in it, but when the pressure got heavy there was a big turf battle," said in EPA source who was involved from the beginning. "Nobody wanted to do it, but they didn't want us to do anything either."
Rall of NIEHS said in an interview that regulatory agencies like EPA have "a seeming conflict of interest" in doing research on which they then base regulations. Dr. Gilbert S. Omenn, a geneticist in charge of health and human services at the Office of Management and Budget, said EPA had responsibility for environmental work and the Health and Human Services Department for health work, "and I think that's an appropriate division of labor."
HHS Secretary Patricia Robert Harris denied that there were any turf problems, but met with EPA Administrator Douglas Costle yesterday to work out "an overall operational arrangement." Reports that HHS (formerly HEW) had been reluctant in the past to do health studies on the waste dumps EPA was finding every day were exaggerated, she said.
"One of the things we talked about today is how we can be more responsive to his regulatory needs," she said.
The overall difference in approach was summed up by Justice's James Moorman, head of the land and natural resources division, which is prosecuting Hooker Chemical:
"When you get an answer to the question you ask, the government has to act because it has to govern. It can't wait 10 years, if that's what's required to get the final answer that the scientists want."
And back at Love Canal, homeowners' association president Lois Gibbs was bitter. "We have really been jerked around on this," she said. "We no longer trust the government."