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Federal Agency Accused of Ignoring Toxic Threats

Mar 12, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is coming under some heavy fire following a House investigative report that says agency officials "deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns," reported the Associated Press (AP).  The ATSDR, a branch of the Health and Human Sciences Department (HHS), is in existence to study and respond to adverse health effects near toxic pollution sites and caused by toxic waste, the AP and OMB Watch said.

The report and experts have said, according to the AP, that ATSDR “often obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis, and fails to zero in on toxic culprits.”  OMB Watch described the ATSDR as not responding to illness patterns emerging near toxic sites, citing the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight.

Echoing community complaints, the House Science and Technology Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee wrote, "Time and time again ATSDR appears to avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities throughout the nation," reported the AP.  Residents near contaminated sites have also criticized the agency saying that they are tired of the ATSDR giving unclear answers and telling communities there are no causes for concern despite noxious odors and obvious industrial contaminants, said the AP.

Under the Superfund clean-up law, ATSDR is mandated to assess health concerns at polluted areas as well as those of concern to residents, explained the AP, which noted that ATSDR director, Howard Frumkin, is scheduled to appear before the House science panel today.  ATSDR works on the health side with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responsible for environmental assessment and correction, said OMB Watch.

The report outlines myriad situations in which ATSDR failed its communities and played down serious problems, said OMB Watch.  For instance, internal ATSDR scientists voiced criticisms and concerns over the agency’s handling of some key contamination issues, said the AP, noting that toxicologist Christopher DeRosa told Congress that his management minimized the health risks of the formaldehyde-riddled Toxic FEMA Trailers issued to those who survived the Hurricanes Rita and Katrina disasters, now known to cause serious, sometimes long-term, health problems.

OMB Watch reported that despite that asbestos debris was washing up on an Illinois beach, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the ATSDR released a report in 2000 that found that “no apparent public health hazard exists.”  The debris continued washing up and, seven years later, the ATSDR maintained that the contaminated beaches were safe, according to the subcommittee’s report.  EPA issued an objection citing 2006 tests that found asbestos had contaminated the sand, said the AP.

The AP also revealed that Ronald Hoffman, a professor of medicine at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, found an elevated incidence of polycythemia vera, a blood cancer, in northeast Pennsylvania when working with ATSDR scientists. The research linked the outbreak to environmental issues; however, ATSDR, initially denied the link.  And, the AP also reported that Henry Cole, an environmental consultant and former senior EPA scientist, said a four-year study into residents' complaints of foul smells and health problems near the Perma-fix waste plant in Ohio found the site safe, but actually used insufficient sampling and excluded legal and regulatory data.

According an employee at the agency, said OMB Watch, “It seems like the goal is to disprove the communities’ concerns rather than actually trying to prove exposures.”


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