Opponents of the Times Beach incinerator question the results of a newly released study measuring dioxin levels in nearby residents’ blood
BY C.D. STELZER
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Nov. 13, 1996
The Missouri Department of Health (DoH) refused on Friday to make public any scientific data relating to its blood study of residents who live near the Times Beach dioxin incinerator.
The Riverfront Times had asked for the data so it could be independently analyzed. The newspaper’s request follows the premature announcement by the DoH last week that indicates dioxin levels in the vicinity of the Superfund site are among lowest ever recorded in the nation.
Daryl Roberts, chief epidemiologist for the state, rejected the possibility of releasing the raw numbers on the grounds of protecting the confidentiality of the subjects involved in the study. “I can’t provide it,” Roberts told the RFT. “The best I can give you is what’s in the news release.”
Pat Costner, a chemist for the environmental group Greenpeace, took exception to Roberts reasoning. “When those samples go into the lab, they’re numbered — they don’t have people’s names on them,” says Costner. “As long as there are no names on the data, it’s not a violation of confidence.”
Environmentalists opposed to the incinerator contend that the DoH’s selective analysis is seriously flawed and that publication of partial results is a violation of scientific standards that require such studies be peer reviewed before release.
“This isn’t science this is bullshit,” says Steve Taylor of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG). “The methods for testing dioxin blood levels can be complicated or even deceptive. Due to the sensitivity of tests like these and their impact on our community, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recognizes the importance of having results peer reviewed before publication.” Taylor says the DoH released the limited data in advance of the completion of the study in order to support the position that the incinerator is not a threat to public health.
In order to bolster the purported safety of the incinerator, the DoH restricted its published analysis to 2,3,7,8 TCDD — only one of many types of dioxins and other hazardous materials being burned at Times Beach. “TCDD represents about 10 percent of the total dioxin equivalents in a human body,” says Costner. “Nobody even talks about TCDD anymore because it’s such a minor contributor.”
The agency first tested dioxin levels of nearby residents in September 1995 and then again in July, four months after the incinerator began operating. Based on its analysis, the DoH now claims dioxin blood levels of nearby residents and a comparison group are far below the national average of 3.2 to 10.1 parts per trillion (ppt). Among nearby Times Beach residents, dioxin blood levels allegedly declined from 1.81 ppt to 1.24 ppt, according to the DoH.
Taylor of TBAG debates whether the national average for dioxin blood levels is valid because it is based on discredited or obsolete studies. He also brands the current analysis inconclusive in that it measures only dioxin levels in lipids or fats. In addition, the DoH study excludes those most likely to be effected: children, the elderly and anyone exposed to excessive dioxin levels in the past.
Besides these drawbacks, the DoH estimates are based on only four months of exposure to incineration. That short period, says Taylor, allows for little more than an inhalation study and ignores the long-term potential for ingesting dioxins through the food chain, which experts consider the primary path of exposure.
On this point, DoH and TBAG are in rare agreement. “Yeah, we’re looking at the inhalation exposure at this time,” says Roberts. “However, as another part of the protocol, we have collected vegetable and soil samples … and they are currently in storage.” But the state epidemiologist would not hazard a guess when those samples would be analyzed. “I don’t even have a laboratory that’s going to do the work (yet),” Roberts says. In regard to other chemical contaminants, the DoH press release last week stated that “a cursory look found no increased levels to cause concern.” None of the other data will be released until after the completion of the third blood draw expected within a month of the completion of incineration, according to Roberts. At that late stage, it will be too late to protect public health, if the incinerator is indeed dangerous.
Roberts sees nothing sinister in the timing of the latest announcement, and says it was part of the plan. “We talked to ATSDR and discussed the need to release the first two values publicly to provide information so the community can at least determine whether it believes its had an excessive exposure or not,” says Roberts. “TCDD is the congener of concern in Missouri. Other contaminants of concern have toxic equivalence factors magnitudes lower than TCDD. The best I can say is that we reported out the information as it was provided to us from Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and CDC is the best laboratory in the nation.”
Costner of Greenpeace considers the DoH findings absurd. “If magically all the people around Times Beach were able to buy food with no dioxin in it, and breath air with no dioxin, it would then still take more than two years from September 95 for their TCDD levels to be expected to drop to the levels that they (DoH) are claiming for the second set of samples,” she says. “Are they saying the incinerator is sucking the dioxin out those people’s bodies? That’s what their data suggests. Does that make sense?”
Results of a separate ATSDR study released in September found abnormally high cancer rates among former residents of Times Beach and other Missouri dioxin sites. Interestingly, the DoH blood study, tentatively scheduled for release around the same time, was held up due to delays at the CDC laboratory, according to Roberts. The DoH finally released its optimistic findings in the aftermath of last week’s state and national elections. One day later, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had more good news. A DNR investigation absolved International Technologies (IT) of any possible wrongdoing or conflict of interest regarding its partial ownership of Quanterra Environmental Services (“Twice Burned,” RFT, Aug. 28). The month-long state inquiry found IT and Quanterra guilty of nothing more than poor paperwork.
Meanwhile, the incineration forges ahead with no end in sight. Approximately, 228,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated soil and other materials from 27 sites in Eastern Missouri are expected to be burned before the cleanup is completed. This is more than twice as much waste as originally estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).