Connecting the dots

The Great Lakes are polluted, and everyone knows that. And pollution is bad for you; everyone knows that, too. But the Bush administration apparently doesn’t want anyone connecting the dots: For months, government officials have been blocking the release of a report suggesting that pollution in the Great Lakes region may be adversely affecting the health of millions of people.

The report, produced by researchers at the government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), studied 26 sites where lake-water was known to have been contaminated with a cocktail of toxic chemicals ranging from lead and mercury to cyanide, DDT, and dioxin. Comparing public health records for the surrounding area with those from neighboring counties and those from the country as a whole, researchers found a long list of worrying markers: Infant mortality was elevated in 21 of the 26 regions studied; breast cancer death rates were elevated in 17 of the regions. Colon and lung cancer rates were similarly high; so too were rates of fertility deficits, low birth rates, and immune system dysfunction.

Equally alarming was the sheer number of people the study found to be potentially affected by the chemical waste. Nine million people live in the so-called “areas of concern”; of those, at least 230,000 “vulnerable” people – young children, reproductive-age women, and the elderly – live within a mile of contaminated sites.

But when lead researcher Chris De Rosa – the director of the ATSDR’s toxicology division – tried to publish his findings, he hit a wall. Long after the standard peer-review process was completed, and with the report just a week away from publication, agency bigwigs caught wind of the report and halted its publication. To drive the point home, they had De Rosa demoted to a non-supervisory position.  

The ATSDR claims the study was blocked because it created the impression of a causal link between pollution and health problems in the region, but failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify the claim. That’s disingenuous, though: De Rosa’s report explicitly stated that its aim was not to prove a causal link, but merely to note a troubling correlation and provide impetus for further research.

The agency says it now plans to publish a “corrected” (read: watered-down) version of the report; fortunately, a leaked copy of the undiluted original has already been made available by the Center for Public Integrity. With lawmakers condemning the ATSDR’s handling of the case and beginning a formal investigation, it seems that for once the Bush administration’s efforts to gloss over inconvenient evidence may have backfired.

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