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New congressional report opens Kelly toxic triangle up to new questions

Greg M. Schwartz
gschwartz@sacurrent.com

Those who have doubted government conclusions about the health problems surrounding the former Kelly Air Force Base received fresh ammunition for their suspicions last week when a new report from the U.S. House of Representatives concluded that officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry “deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns.”

The report from the House Science and Technology Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee goes on to say that ATSDR “often obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis, and fails to zero in on toxic culprits” and that “Time and time again ATSDR appears to avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities throughout the nation.”

Kelly AFB is even one of the ten examples specifically cited in the report. It notes a 1999 ATSDR report that examined cancer incidence around Kelly and found increased levels of liver and kidney cancer as well as leukemia, but failed to link the illnesses to toxins that had leached into the neighborhoods from aircraft operations at Kelly.

Dr. Katherine Squibb, a toxicologist from the University of Maryland, found that ATSDR’s report on Kelly was based on minimal information, that some Air Force studies ATSDR relied on for its conclusions failed to measure important exposure pathways, and that ATSDR failed to conduct an adequate assessment of whether or not some chemicals migrated off- base.

“It is questionable as to whether ATSDR’s conclusion that no public exposure to contaminants occurred through domestic use of groundwater in the past is correct,” wrote Squibb in the report.

Regarding another ATSDR report, Squibb concluded that ATSDR had examined health risks from exposure to soil from a part of the base only after it had been cleaned up and remediated.

“It does not appear that ATSDR has considered health risks associated with soil from this site that migrated prior to remediation,” said Squibb.

Squibb’s comments concerning ATSDR’s conclusions about the groundwater back up this reporter’s recent hunch that the ATSDR opinion leaves a critical hole in assessment of the matter. Upon attempting to determine who had the final say on the question of what is causing the reported health problems, I targeted a 2001 ATSDR study indicating that while rates of certain cancers and birth defects were high, that ATSDR could not attribute them to the toxic substances that have emanated from the base. The plume of chemicals underneath is known to stretch for at least five miles, lying under more than 20,000 homes and businesses, with the primary carcinogens being TCE (trichloroethylene) and PCE (perchloroethylene).

Upon a recent query about what ATSDR would attribute those high rates of illness to, if not Kelly, ATSDR spokesperson Jeff Dimond responded by saying that the agency is no longer active at Kelly AFB and would have to refer the matter to the EPA.

“EPA is not in a position to speak for ATSDR in this matter and must
refer you back to them,” responded EPA Public Information Officer Dave Bary. Dimond then said he’d run the question “back up the flagpole,” which garnered a statement a week later from David Fowler, ATSDR Division of Health Assessment and Consultation (Lead Health Assessor for the Kelly AFB study).

“At the time of initial investigation in 1996, groundwater plumes were
just beginning to move off base to the north (North Kelly Gardens) and
south (Quintana Road) of the base,” wrote Fowler. “The groundwater plumes through and from East Kelly were not yet characterized… Because the plumes… were just beginning to move off base, because gas sampling in homes did not reveal a public health concern, and because the contaminated aquifer was not a source of drinking water, it was deemed unlikely that cancer elevations were caused by groundwater contamination.”

Fowler went on to state that cancer latency for most cancers may
be 10 to 20 years or more, and that “ the liver cancer was so
widespread (in south San Antonio) that contamination from Kelly could
not be the primary cause.”

But all of these conclusions now come under further question due to the new congressional report about ATSDR’s inadequacies. When queried last week for further comment in light of the new report, Dimond said that ATSDR Director Howard Frumkin's testimony before the House Sub-Committee on Science and Technology and comments posted on the Committee's website are the only comments that ATSDR will be making on the matter.

Frumkin tried to minimize his agency’s culpability at the hearing, saying that “While communities expect us to provide definitive answers about the links between exposures and illnesses, even the best science sometimes does not permit firm conclusions.”

Committee chairman Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), wasn’t having it though as he accused ATSDR of poor science and “a keenness to please industries and government agencies that prefer to minimize public health consequences of environmental exposures.”

Results of recent indoor air testing by EPA to determine if chemical vapors are seeping into area homes are due to be released at the next meeting of the Kelly Restoration Advisory Board on April 14. This new report is sure to be a hot topic of discussion as well. The Current will be interviewing Dr. Katherine Squibb about Kelly later this week, so stay tuned for more on these latest revelations…

Posted by Gschwartz on 3/16/2009 7:03:01 PM
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