Bootlegged Federal Report Spells Trouble for 8 States

Environmental contamination may be linked to high infant mortality, cancer rates.

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The investigative group Center for Public Integrity this morning posted bootlegged portions of what appears to be a disturbing—and purportedly suppressed—government report about environmental contamination across the Great Lakes region. Six years in the making, the report assesses evidence of health-threatening contamination in 26 "areas of concern" covering parts of eight states, and it links contamination in many of those areas to high rates of infant mortality, other infant health problems, and adult malignancies, including breast, colon, and lung cancers.

The scientific evidence supporting those links is only circumstantial—the report describes geographic patterns of contamination and disease but explicitly makes no claims about causes or effects. Nevertheless, the number of people who might be at risk is staggering: The 54 affected counties have more than 9 million residents, including 230,000 whom the report deems particularly "vulnerable."

If those findings aren't bad enough, the government's alleged foot-dragging in releasing them may be worse. CPI's investigative account, by journalist Sheila Kaplan, begins:

For more than seven months, the nation's top public health agency has blocked the publication of an exhaustive federal study of environmental hazards in the eight Great Lakes states, reportedly because it contains such potentially "alarming information" as evidence of elevated infant mortality and cancer rates.

The eight states are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Some Canadian territory also fell within the report's purview.

According to the version of the report released today, 21 of the 26 areas of concern had elevated infant mortality rates, and 17 had elevated rates of breast cancer. The researchers mapped health data county by county and compared it with health data from other U.S. counties. It also related the health data to geographical information from two databases that track releases of certain toxic substances and pollutants.

The draft of the Great Lakes report appears one day after three members of Congress on the Committee on Science and Technology sent a letter to Julie Gerberding requesting access to the report and to documents pertaining to its delayed release. Gerberding runs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which has been preparing the report since 2002.

ATSDR had planned to make its work public last July but "abruptly canceled the release of the report ... days before its planned release," according to the letter sent by Reps. Bart Gordon, Brad Miller, and Nick Lampson, all Democrats. By that time, scientists within ATSDR and outside the government had reviewed the science in the report.

"I understand that the peer review was not critical, that the peer review supported the release of the document," North Carolina's Miller told me today, after his office provided me with a copy of the letter. Last December, he and his colleagues requested documentation from ATSDR to explain what had happened. The documents, he said, "are a month past due already."

But Glen Nowak, the government agency's chief spokesperson, said some peer reviewers raised questions about the report's scientific methods. Many of their concerns—such as discrepancies in the geographical information attached to the various types of data—have been addressed in the past seven months, he said. The report is still undergoing revision, he added. "We're cautiously optimistic that this report will be out [soon]. We're talking weeks instead of months."

"If the [agency's] concern is genuinely about...a lack of scientific rigor," Miller said, "there should be ample documentation of that. That is not the sort of decision that's made at the water cooler. If there is no such documentation, it is going to be very, very difficult to persuade me that that is the real reason" the report has been withheld from the public.

In their letter to Gerberding, Miller and his colleagues also criticized the agency's treatment of ATSDR scientist Christopher De Rosa, an author of the Great Lakes report, and asserted that he had been blocked from granting interviews to the media. "The CDC's conduct in denying the news media access to Dr. De Rosa certainly appears to violate [federal policy]," they wrote.

It's not the first time this administration has been accused of muzzling science. But is a federal agency really burying the work of its own scientists, or is all of this sound, fury, and politics as usual?

Nowak told me today that he would permit De Rosa to speak with U.S. News . I invite readers to suggest questions for the author of this long-awaited report.