More Fernald studies considered

But expense and time are issues


BY TIM BONFIELD
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nailing down the potential health risks posed by the former Fernald uranium processing plant promises to be a long - and expensive - process.

In August, a landmark dose reconstruction study reported that living for many years near the Fernald plant posed an increased risk of developing lung cancer.

The study confirmed some long-suspected fears among residents of Ross, Crosby Township and other areas surrounding the plant.

But the study did not address many other health questions.

The dose reconstruction study was sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It reported that radon gas emitted from the site's single biggest cleanup headache - the waste contained in Fernald's deteriorating K-65 silos - also posed the greatest health risk.

For the worst-case scenario - a person living for 38 years, one mile from the plant - the lifetime odds of developing a fatal cancer were estimated to be 23 percent, compared with a normal, ''background'' cancer rate of 20 percent.

Elevated lung cancer risks also exist for people living for shorter times farther from the plant, but at considerably reduced levels.

Cancer risks were highest for neighbors who smoked, because cigarette smoke helps carry the radioactive material into the lungs, thus aggravating the lung cancer risk that smokers already face.

What to do about these findings has been the mission of the 20-member Fernald Health Effects Subcommittee.

This was the third time the group has met in two-day sessions, and it was clear the committee will take several months to complete its recommendations.

The main issue remains whether CDC should launch a multimillion-dollar epidemiology study. Such a study would give the best-possible estimate of how many people got lung cancer from living near Fernald.

It was unclear Thursday whether such a study would be done and whether it would address several other health concerns raised by committee members.

Did radiation from Fernald trigger miscarriages and birth defects, as some neighbors suspect? What about other forms of cancer and other diseases? And what about the health risks caused by the thousands of tons of toxic chemicals used in the production process?

''I've already heard enough about lung cancer,'' said committee member Edwa Yocum, a member of FRESH, a citizens watchdog group that has followed the Fernald issue for years. ''I want to get answers to some of these other questions.''

But the scientific community is still digesting the lung cancer findings. A critique of the dose reconstruction study from the National Academy of Sciences - which includes the nation's top radiation experts - is due within a few weeks. The dose study will not be considered final until it takes the academy's comments into account.

Other pieces of data are scheduled to come out next year.

The CDC is working on a population risk study that would flesh out which groups of residents are at highest cancer risk, based on location, lifestyle and other factors.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is studying radiation effects on Fernald workers, and is considering a lung cancer study involving workers at several nuclear weapons sites.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is doing a ''public health assessment'' that will address current health risks posed by the plant.

Meanwhile, local researchers are just starting to comb through data from medical monitoring programs established when two class action lawsuits against Fernald's managers were settled.

So far, 8,462 adults and 990 children who lived near the plant have received at least one medical exam through the program. So have about 1,900 former Fernald workers, said Dr. Robert Wones, the project's medical director.

But studies of any medical trends arising from those exams have just begun. Reports remain several months away.

Published Nov. 15, 1996.