Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Great Lakes health data hidden

Naomi Lubik in Environmental Science & Technology: The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a report at the beginning of February on health effects related to chemicals in "areas of concern" around the Great Lakes region. The nonprofit organization claims that the data were quashed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Great Lakes region contains 43 recognized 'areas of concern', where nearby residents may be exposed to chemical wastes.

The study was commissioned by the International Joint Commission (IJC)—a Canadian–U.S. group that advises both countries on Great Lakes governance issues—and carried out by researchers at CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report, Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern, remains under wraps. IJC member David Carpenter, head of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, State University of New York, says that he saw the report several times, and in a recent letter, he encouraged CDC's director to publish it. Other reviewers reported technical problems, such as outdated information on the status of hazardous waste sites, and they are still waiting to see whether those problems have been rectified, Carpenter reports.

The initial IJC call was triggered by a 1998 assessment from Health Canada. That report used data from the country's public health care system to show increased hospitalizations for various diseases, more birth defects, and other adverse health outcomes, in communities exposed to 17 hazardous waste sites on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes region. IJC's intent was to get the same geographically correlated evidence for the U.S. side. Although such data have been published in the literature or are available in state databases, no one had gathered them together until the ATSDR report in question. Carpenter points to his group's work, which provided evidence from New York sites that was quite similar to that in the Canadian report. He and his colleagues published data in the scientific literature last year linking elevated hospitalization rates from diabetes, particularly near the Hudson River, to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs.

Levels of PCBs and some other chemicals have flattened out in the Great Lakes since the 1970s, but the current concentrations are still dangerous, Carpenter says. Even more worrisome is that "levels of new POPs are increasing." He points to "an almost exponential rise" of brominated flame retardants—with structures similar to PCBs but unknown health effects—over the past few years. "It's better to face it, even if we don't have easy solutions" or have no solutions at all, Carpenter says. "But reassuring people that there is no problem when there is is inappropriate."…

Great Lakes from space, NASA, Wikimedia Commons

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