New round of public hearings â?? with Toxic Triangle updates â?? on the way

Greg Harman

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Food recalls, military contamination, industrial secrecy â?? our small group had been discussing a range of toxics-related health concerns for possible inclusion in a federal study when the head of San Antonio's health department enters the room and slumps into a chair against the wall. He's just come from a City budget session â?? one he calls “very painful and very worrisome” â?? and displays the combined exhaustion and relief of someone who has finally convinced a bull terrier to let go of his leg.

Someone add underfunded regulatory agencies to the worry list.

The study we've gathered to participate in is a national “conversation” being led by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry is an attempt to plumb the public mood on toxic chemicals and their potential health impacts.

Conveniently, perhaps, the conversation appears to have nearly skipped Texas, not an insignificant emitter of toxic chemicals in its own right. Fortunately, Children's Environmental Health Institute Executive Director Janie Fields heard about it and quickly set up a meeting for Austin. San Antonio's Metro Health Director Fernando Guerra, CEHI's board chair, did the same for San Anto.

The San Antonio results shipped to D.C. today. What good comes of it, we will see. But at least a small group of public health advocates, community activists, and governmental types, had the chance to kick leading questions about the potential loss of “convenience” experienced from demanding safety back up the flagpole. General consensus among the dozen of us gathered last Thursday held that the Great Health Experiment taking place in our bodies was not a voluntary process. As Fields points out to me later: Since the close of World War Two there have been about 80, 000 new chemicals introduced into the marketplace, yet since 1976 only 200 have been reviewed thanks to the Toxic Substances Review Act. Of those, five have been banned. Got flame retardants? Yeah, I bet you do.

`Those concerned about environmental exposures may want to put their voice behind an effort to pass a Toxic Chemicals Safety Act that would attempt to reform the process by which chemicals are approved. Just a thought.`

All this should lead some of you to ponder on San Antonio's own Toxic Triangle front. Fortunately, San Antonians will see a new wave of information about the potential causes of elevated liver cancers around Kelly Air Force Base, rapidly being transformed into the Port of San Antonio, released this summer. Metro Health is assembling a round of monthly meetings for July, August, and September. Should funding and public interest remain high, however, there may be meetings beyond that.

So far, one of closest things researchers have been able to point to as a possible pathway of exposure linking residents to the contaminated plume running beneath the Kelly area have been water wells. Since the groundwater plume containing a range of heavy metals and industrial chemicals was discovered in the late 1980s, 80 wells have been plugged, said Kyle Cunningham, of the Health Department's Public Center for Environmental Health.

Now, a new study is wrapping up involving aflatoxin as a possible factor. Another will disclose the variety of chemical compounds found in soil samples, Cunningham said. “With Kelly, it's not an easy subject,” she said. “We have really pushed to answer those `questions` as fairly as we can.”

Cunningham hopes to also undertake a more site-specific birth-defects study using new, up-to-date plume maps, possibly for release next year. “I think that's still a question out in the community,” she said.

Until we gather in July to fight over any new pie charts and spreadsheets, make sure to stay out of Leon Creek. Or, with the weather on the way, try to keep the creek out of you.

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