Sunday, August 26, 2001

Questions linger over Fernald

But health committee disbanded

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Edwa Yocum says she still has 472 questions about the health risks of pollution from the closed Fernald uranium plant, just 2 miles from her home.

        Each of those questions is represented by a pin on a map she has kept since 1988. Each of those pins represents a person with a rare or unexplained illness who lives within 5 miles of the plant.

[photo] Edwa Yocum and her map showing incidences of illnesses and deaths possibly connected to Fernald.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        More than 400 pins are people with cancer — red for people thought to be alive, black for those known to be dead. A few dozen orange pins denote non-cancer illnesses, such as kidney disease, birth defects and learning disabilities.

        Many — maybe even most — of the illnesses may have nothing to do with exposure to Fernald, the region's biggest environmental cleanup project. But Mrs. Yocum doesn't know.

        People may never get answers to their questions about Fernald, said Mrs. Yocum, despite the public pressure that shut down the plant 12 years ago, despite more than $6 million in health-related studies, and despite a health advisory committee formed nearly five years ago.

        On Wednesday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disbanded the Fernald Health Effects Subcommittee after agency officials said their work there is done.

        “When you sit here and listen to all these people, you have to wonder. Why are all these things happening?” said Mrs. Yocum, who has served on the health committee from the start.

        “There has been some basic (research) done, but it hasn't been thorough enough. The work is not done, in my opinion.”

        The committee was formed in 1996, along with three similar committees at other nuclear weapons sites, to provide advice about health concerns to the CDC, to a branch agency called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

       Incomplete or pending studies involving Fernald:
       • The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) expects to release a final version this year of a draft public health assessment about the chemical risks of uranium exposure.
       • A UC project with ATSDR to estimate worker exposures to radon gas is about two years from completion.
       • A UC project started in April to look in detail at lung, breast, prostate and urinary system cancers among people in the neighbors' medical monitoring program.
       • No sponsor has been found to conduct computer analysis of data from a worker's medical monitoring program.
       • A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health plan to expand a study of worker death rates has been approved but has not been started.
        That committee served as a forum through which the public learned the results of several health studies involving Fernald. Compared to the 1980s — when government officials initially refused to admit that any contamination had escaped the plant site, much less caused harm — the information that emerged about Fernald in the late 1990s was groundbreaking.

        In several studies, government agencies confirmed that workers and residents suffered elevated health risks from their exposure to the facility:

        • In 1998, a $6 million dose reconstruction study advanced methods used nationwide to estimate radiation risks at America's nuclear weapons production sites. That study surprised many by concluding that radiation from radon gas emitting from two waste storage silos was more dangerous than radiation from hundreds of tons of uranium dust polluting the air, soil and groundwater around Fernald.

        • A year later, the CDC used the dose data to estimate that the radon gas emissions have caused or will cause about 85 deaths from lung cancer. In a worst-case scenario, the CDC estimated that Fernald radiation might have caused or may still cause neighbors to suffer 23 cases of leukemia, four cases of kidney cancer, three cases of breast cancer, and four cases of bone cancer.

        • A NIOSH study released in 1995 reported an above-normal death rate from lung cancer among hourly workers and from stomach cancer among salaried staff.

        • As recently as Wednesday, new health data was still coming out. According to University of Cincinnati researchers, neighbors who participated in a court-ordered medical monitoring program are suffering higher-than-average rates of kidney disease, thyroid disease (including goiter), bladder disease and liver damage. Some of the rates are two to four times higher than normal.

        However, those findings should be viewed with caution, said Dr. Susan Pinney, the chief UC researcher on these studies.

        “This is all preliminary information. There is no way to relate these cases to exposures from Fernald,” she said.

Separating workers, neighbors

        So far, the potential dangers linked to Fernald have appeared anti-climactic in comparison to the long-voiced fears of neighbors, unions and environmentalists.

        The lack of shocking findings has contributed to low attendance at public hearings, spotty coverage by local news media, and lack of interest among health agencies and politicians to invest in more studies, Mrs. Yocum said.

        Yet without the health advisory committee, getting more information about Fernald will become that much harder.

        “Once the CDC leaves, it comes across that everything must be fine and dandy now. But people don't know the real story,” Mrs. Yocum said.

        The general public, politicians, and even doctors working in communities near Fernald have no clue how many gaps exist in the health information that has come out so far, Mrs. Yocum said.

        Information so far has been related to exposure to radioactive materials. And that data focuses primarily on the risks faced by neighbors, not workers.

        For example, the groundbreaking dose reconstruction study started at Fernald's fence line. Fernald employees, who worked far closer to the K-65 silos and often with no special protection, are still waiting for estimates of their radon gas exposure.

        The separate treatment of worker health concerns versus neighbor concerns has been a problem for years, said Louis Doll, a union representative for building trades workers at Fernald.

        For example, the medical monitoring program for neighbors has money to pay for computer analysis of data collected from its 8,000-plus participants. But no money has been authorized to study worker data from a similar, but separate, monitoring program.

        Beyond the radiation-related concerns, people face potential health risks from the many toxic chemicals used at Fernald. Far less information about those risks has been made public, health committee members said.

        CDC officials say they understand that people are upset about dissolving the health committee. But, they say, they have answered the health questions that can be expected to be answered.

        The body of scientific knowledge about the links between radiation and certain types of cancer is much stronger than the understanding of the risks of toxic chemicals, said Dr. James Smith, chief of CDC's radiation studies branch.

        Scientists also do not automatically reject concerns that Fernald pollution might have triggered birth defects, miscarriages and genetic damage. Instead, they predict that a study won't produce a reliable answer.

        For many of the unaddressed health questions, there seem to be so few cases and so little baseline information about what a “normal” number of cases might be, that a study might not be able to detect an increased risk even if it was real, Dr. Smith said.

        During all this time, the government has never attempted to count all the cancer cases and other illnesses that actually affected people living near Fernald.

        It would take an epidemiologic study to make such a count, match the cases to exposure estimates from the dose reconstruction data, and then compare it all to average levels of illness in a normal population.

        The CDC rejected pursuing such a study — with agreement from the health subcommittee — after the CDC estimated it would cost $10 million and take 10 years to finish.

        Several members of the health effects subcommittee say they hope to find funding to continue their work, even if the committee has to be restructured.

        Yet the health concerns will continue for years to come, Mrs. Yocum said.

        For example, a long-delayed project to clean up the K-65 silo waste — the most dangerous material at Fernald — has yet to begin.


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