Agency criticized for withholding Great Lakes health risk report

Getting samples
All summer long, workers take samples of water at beaches up and down the North Shore of Lake Superior.
MPR Photo

(AP) - A report describing potential health threats near the Great Lakes region's most heavily polluted sites will be made public after changes are made to fix flaws with draft versions, a federal official said Thursday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has drawn criticism from members of Congress, scientists and a U.S.-Canadian agency for withholding the report. It had been scheduled for release last summer.

Reviewers inside and outside the CDC found "a number of problems" with the study, CDC spokesman Glen Nowak said. "It's being worked on."

The roughly 400-page document uses statistics from a variety of health and environmental databases to assess risks for more than 9 million people living near 26 areas on the U.S. side of the lakes that are polluted with toxins such as PCBs, mercury and dioxins.

"With all its blemishes, I think [the report] ought to come out."

Many of the counties where the sites are located have abnormally high rates of cancer and other health problems such as infant mortality, according to a report summary posted on the Web site of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C.

The report does not say the toxic waste sites caused any of the health problems but raises questions for further study, said Peter Orris, a scientist who has reviewed it independently of the CDC.

"It takes information that was already available to the public and organizes it in a way that will be helpful to communities," said Orris, a professor of occupational and health sciences at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago. "With all its blemishes, I think it ought to come out."

The report was requested in 2001 by the International Joint Commission, an independent panel that advises U.S. and Canadian officials on Great Lakes water quality issues. The CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted the study.

The commission and the toxics agency had planned to release the findings in July 2007. But shortly beforehand, the toxics agency notified the commission that revisions were needed, said commission spokesman Frank Bevacqua.

In a December letter to toxics agency Director Howard Frumkin, the commission said it "strongly supports publication of the report."

U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, also called for release of the July version and called the delay "disturbing."

Nowak said CDC studies typically undergo numerous revisions before release.

One weakness of the Great Lakes study, he said, was its correlation of environmental data from specific toxic waste sites with health data from entire counties. The waste sites typically occupy a relatively small part of one or more counties.

Additionally, it linked health and environmental statistics that in some cases were from different time periods, he said.

Although the study was not designed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the toxic pollution and elevated illness levels, some of its wording "implied just the opposite" and concerned some reviewers, Nowak said.

"They wanted to make sure the right inferences were made and the information wasn't presented in a confusing fashion," he said.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment with the University at Albany in New York, said he twice had reviewed the draft and recommended its publication.

"I don't know of any improvements that could be made," said Carpenter, a member of the International Joint Commission's science advisory board.

He said he respected Frumkin but feared the final version of the report might be watered down.

The Bush administration "has been very much attempting to downplay the role of toxins around the Great Lakes," Carpenter said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)