Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#292 - What Has Gone Wrong? -- Part 1: Congress Creates A Monster: The ATSDR, 30-Jun-1992

When chemical wastes hit the headlines in 1978 the name "Love Canal"
entered the American vocabulary. Suddenly Rachel Carson's vision of a
"silent spring" seemed real: the genie of modern chemical technology
had turned upon its master. In truth, it was the chemical industry's
worst nightmare: they had known since the late 1950s that burying
chemicals in the ground did not get rid of them but merely created
pockets of poison. But they were hooked on cheap disposal so they kept
doing it anyway, hoping against hope that no one would find out. (See
RHWN #97 and #98.) By that time industry had produced--and stashed
SOMEWHERE--about 100 trillion pounds of hazardous wastes, enough waste
to create a highway to the moon 100 feet wide, 10 feet deep.

When things hit the fan at Love Canal in 1978, many chemical executives
thought it was all over. The 50-year chemical joy-ride was finished.
The public knew. There was no way to pretend any longer. Perhaps the
chemical industry itself was finished.

But these chemical-industry doomsayers were wrong. Congress could be
counted on to help out, and help out it did.

In 1980 Congress passed the "Superfund law" to clean up all the Love
Canals--all 32,000 of them, or all 439,000 of them, depending on which
government estimate you accept.[1] In the 1980 law, Congress gave the
bulk of the cleanup job to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA],
but it also created a new unit of government inside the U.S. Public
Health Service, called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry (ATSDR, usually pronounced one letter at a time, A-T-S-D-R).

According to the 1980 law, ATSDR's "mission is to prevent or mitigate
adverse human health effects and diminished quality of life resulting
from environmental exposure to hazardous substances." ATSDR was
supposed to measure the HUMAN HEALTH aspects of hazardous waste sites
so illness could be prevented or mitigated. At the time, this seemed a
bold and worthy goal. In retrospect the 10-year history of the agency
has proven to be anything but bold and worthy, as we shall see.

From 1980 to 1983, the Public Health Service simply refused to create
ATSDR. A lifelong bureaucrat and physician named Vernon L. Houk was in
charge, and he just put ATSDR on a shelf and thumbed his nose at
Congress. Houk was honest about his feelings: he said ATSDR wasn't
needed because chemicals don't harm people. ATSDR was finally created
in 1983 by a lawsuit filed jointly by the Environmental Defense Fund
(EDF), the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and the American
Petroleum Institute, all seeking to force Houk and the Public Health
Service to comply with the law.

It is not hard to imagine why EDF wanted ATSDR, but why would the
Chemical Manufacturers Association and the American Petroleum Institute
want ATSDR created? And particularly under Houk's leadership? (We'll
explore this mystery as we go along.)

By 1985 ATSDR was two years old but under Houk's leadership it was a
"crippled" agency that "still did not have a clear agenda and work plan
and had not produced any substantial work on the health aspects of
hazardous waste sites," according to the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1986 Congress reacted to ATSDR's 5-year failure by giving the agency
more responsibility, requiring the agency to:

(a) conduct health assessments of every site listed on, or proposed
for, the National Priorities List (or NPL, the official list of
dangerous old dumps needing Superfund cleanup);

(b) establish a priority list of chemicals found at Superfund sites;

(c) produce toxicological profiles for each substance on the list;

(d) and undertake studies of the health effects of hazardous substances
and hazardous waste sites.

Congress gave ATSDR two years to produce health assessments at all 951
sites that had been put on the Superfund list as of October 17, 1986,
and one year to produce health assessments for any site added to the
list (or proposed for the list) thereafter. The first requirement meant
that ATSDR had to crank out almost two health assessments EACH DAY for
the next two years. The second requirement meant ATSDR had to produce
studies of health effects at a site well before EPA itself completed
initial site evaluation. It is EPA's initial site evaluation that
produces the bulk of the data about what chemicals were dumped at a
site and where they have gone, so ATSDR was required to study health
effects four to five years before data was available about particular
toxins and possible pathways of exposure.

Combined with Houk's conviction that the agency had no valid role
because he "knew" chemicals never harmed people, the new Congressional
requirements guaranteed ATSDR would produce shabby, inconclusive work,
and sure enough that has become the hallmark of ATSDR. In fact, a new
report on ATSDR's performance, released this week is titled
HEALTH RESEARCH.[3] The title refers to the fact that, in the vast
majority of its health assessments to date, ATSDR has chosen to employ
techniques that cannot discern the kinds of health effects Congress
told it to study.

This early history of ATSDR produced two results, both of which
directly benefited the member corporations of the Chemical
Manufacturers Association and the American Petroleum Institute. First,
as the National Academy of Sciences has noted,[4] by creating ATSDR as
it did, Congress appeared to "absolve EPA of the need to directly
incorporate public health considerations into site assessments." This
left EPA free to spend its time conducting "risk assessments"--
mathematical exercises nearly devoid of data--instead of assessing the
health consequences of chemicals.

Secondly, ATSDR pumped out a tremendous number of bad studies, the vast
majority of which found no human health problems, just as Houk
predicted. ATSDR itself concluded that, of the 951 sites it initially
studied, the data were adequate for evaluating environmental
contamination and public health risks at only 31 percent (295) of the
sites.[5] This means the agency knew that 656 of the 951 studies it
produced were based on data that were inadequate to support ANY
conclusions. In truth, it adds up to a massive scientific fraud. Yet
ATSDR pushed those studies out the door bearing the stamp of the U.S.
Public Health Service--averaging more than one flawed study EACH DAY
for two years.

There were two important results from all this:

First, major polluters and their apologists could--and still do--use
these low-quality studies as weapons to silence citizens concerned
about chemical exposures. For example, FORBES magazine says in its July
6, 1992, issue, "Mainstream scientific opinion is now agreed that the
danger from toxic waste was vastly exaggerated."[6] ATSDR has produced
more than a thousand bogus studies that support such a conclusion.

Second, as the National Academy of Sciences has said, "The health of
the public has remained in jeopardy at many sites long after the risks
could have --and should have--been identified."[7] As the National
Academy concluded in a book-length study published late in 1991,
"hazardous wastes have constituted a significant health hazard to
specific populations at specific sites." HOW MANY specific sites
affecting HOW MANY PEOPLE is the key question, but neither EPA nor
ATSDR has an answer, despite a direct mandate from Congress to develop
an answer. It is a sorry record indeed.

In its clinical language, the National Academy study indicts both EPA
and ATSDR for their failures. But to learn the human side of these
failures, you must read the new report on ATSDR released this week by
the Environmental Health Network (Harvey, Louisiana) and the National
Toxics Campaign (Boston, Mass.). It offers a litany of the agency's
wrongdoings and wrong-headedness, from the perspective of citizens.
From a series of case studies--Jacksonville, Arkansas; Texarkana,
Texas; St. Gabriel, Louisiana; North Hampton, New Hampshire; and Hope,
Maine--you can begin to get a sense of what it is like for victims
living near a dump when ATSDR comes to town. Often the agency arrives
unannounced, conducts a health assessment without ever speaking to a
single individual who has complained of symptoms that may be related to
chemical exposures, and leaves. Results of the study will be released a
year or so later, with no explanation of what the results mean.

The report ends with a series of specific recommendations for reforming
ATSDR. The time is ripe for change. Vernon Houk has now developed
cancer of the larynx and is undergoing radiation therapy, so he is no
longer the gray eminence he once was. Perhaps the release of this new
report, with attendant publicity, can jolt the ATSDR into a new view of
the importance of its own mission. The problem of hazardous waste
continues to increase at a steady 6.5 percent each year, doubling every
11 years. FORBES magazine and the polluters like to pretend the problem
isn't serious, but the National Academy of Sciences says different.
Valid studies of health effects are needed now more than ever, and
significant efforts to fix ATSDR are fully warranted.

--Peter Montague


[1] Anthony B. Miller, and others, ENVIRONMENTAL EPIDEMIOLOGY, VOLUME
1: PUBLIC HEALTH AND HAZARDOUS WASTES (Washington, DC: National Academy
Press, 1991), pg. 76, says EPA estimates there are 32,000 Superfund
sites but Congress's Office of Technology Assessment estimates there
are 439,000.

[2] Miller, cited above, pg. 65.

[3] Dick Russell, Sanford Lewis and Brian Keating, INCONCLUSIVE BY
(Harvey, Louisiana and Boston, Mass.: Environmental Health Network, and
National Toxics Campaign Fund, May, 1992). Available for $15 from
Environmental Health Network, P.O. Box 1628, Harvey, LA [70058;]
telephone (504) 362-6574; or from the National Toxics Campaign Fund,
1168 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02108; telephone (617) 232-0327.

[4] Miller, cited above, pg. 65.

[5] Miller, cited above, pg. 67.

[6] Peter Brimelow and Leslie Spencer, "'You Can't Get There From
Here,'" FORBES July 6, 1992, pg. 61.

[7] Miller, cited above, pg. 94.

Descriptor terms: love canal; congress; atsdr; edf; chemical
manufacturers association; american petroleum institute; npl;
superfund; environmental health network;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (29)