Silenced voices from the toxic triangle

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Greg M. Schwartz

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San Antonio Metro Health says it's trying to “cover all the bases” when it comes to analyzing the health issues that plague the city's “toxic triangle” by the former Kelly Air Force Base. But that only seems to apply to reasons other than the toxic contaminants in the underground plume emanating from the base being responsible for the health problems. When there's evidence to indicate that the plume may be indeed be responsible for some of the cancers and birth defects, it seems like it is swept aside.

Case in point â?? last month's report from the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology titled “ATSDR: Problems in the Past, Potential for the Future?” The report ripped the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for its shoddy analytical work.

“The Subcommittee has heard from many sources examples of jackleg science by ATSDR and their keenness to please industries and government agencies that prefer to minimize public health consequence,” said Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) upon the report's release.

The report cited ten examples of such jackleg science, with the former Kelly AFB being among them. Yet Metro Health Director Fernando Guerra admitted today that he hadn't even read the 33-page report (released a month ago), despite the fact that much of Metro Health's own analysis of the situation at Kelly uses ATSDR's work as a foundation.

“Dr. Guerra has consistently downplayed the health problems in the Kelly community and any link to the contamination `from the base`,” said Southwest Workers Union Environmental Justice Coordinator Lara Cushing in a prescient comment last week. “I doubt that EPA, TCEQ or Metro Health will give much attention to the new Congressional report. They've made up their mind on this community long ago.”

Perhaps even more troubling is the silencing of Professor Timothy Aldrich, an expert in cancer clusters from East Tennessee State University, who was brought in by Metro Health contractor HealthCare Resolution Services in 2006 to examine the reports of elevated liver cancers in the areas surrounding Kelly.

The Express-News reported in 2007 that Aldrich's report was “quietly released” to city council but that a planned meeting to announce the results to those living in the affected neighborhoods was never held.

Could this be because Aldrich's findings were deemed politically inconvenient? Aldrich's analysis suggested that even after accounting for all other potential factors â?? such as lifestyle and genetics â?? that 11.5 percent of the cancers in the neighborhoods examined “may be attributable to residing over the Kelly ... plume."

Metro Health then put together a “blue ribbon” panel of “experts in cancer” to review Aldrich's report (a roster of which the Current is awaiting.) That panel ruled that “of particular concern as an outcome of this report was its discussion of attributable risk. The panel felt that this study, as presented, could not accurately conclude anything about attributable risk.”

The panel went on to say Aldrich's report had “significant flaws,” though little detail was given to specifying those flaws. The panel said that “while an epidemiological study would be potentially feasible, it would be a massive undertaking and extremely expensive.”

They instead suggested that “other ongoing scientific investigations that might shed light on this overall issue” should be pursued. These included estimating the rate of hepatitis in the area, as well as a study of possible aflatoxin exposure (a toxic mold that can grow in corn and other crops.) Documentation of such exposure, however, has most commonly been observed in third world countries.

“`Aldrich's` info was of concern because it wasn't jiving with what we already had from the state,” said Guerra regarding how Aldrich came up with conclusions that did not agree with data from the Texas Cancer Registry. Guerra says it wasn't Metro Health's desire to withhold anything from the community. “It was clear that he exceeded what he was meant to have done and there was concern about methodology.”

“He didn't establish a `toxicological` pathway to the community,” added Metro Health Assistant Director Charles Pruski.

“The reason we had it peer reviewed is because there were things that just didn't add up,” said Metro Health's Kyle Cunningham, who served as a liaison to Aldrich on the project.

Guerra says Metro Health didn't want the report released because they didn't feel that it offered accurate information and that it's standard contract language for Metro Health to reserve the right not to publish such work.

Tim Aldrich is curiously not allowed to defend his work, however. Upon being contacted for an interview last week, Aldrich informed the QueQue that he has been essentially gagged from speaking about his report. He said in an email that he was required to direct such inquiry to either Dr. Guerra or HealthCare Resolution Services President Brenda Doles, the latter of which he said had threatened him with a breach of contract lawsuit if he published the report on his own or spoke about it to the media.

Dr. Guerra and other Metro Health officials begged innocence when questioned about the gagging of Aldrich.

“I have no knowledge of the threat of a lawsuit,” said Pruskie, who claimed that HCRS is “a contractor, not a partner” of Metro Health. Talk about splitting hairs â?? Metro Health hired HCRS, which in turn hired Aldrich. But it apparently allows Metro Health to pass the buck to HCRS on the matter of Aldrich's gagging.

“It sounds like another betrayal of the Kelly community by the agency that is supposed to protect us from toxic health threats, not cover them up,” said SWU's Cushing upon hearing about the suppression of Aldrich's voice.

The Maryland-based HCRS has boasted of its “roster of Air Force clientele,” and was chosen as a partner by Metro Health in 2006 after a request for proposals to conduct a study of the liver cancer deaths near Kelly. When Brenda Doles was recognized in 2006 as one of the Washington Business Journal's “Women Who Mean Business,” a press release indicated that HCRS' revenues had “skyrocketed” to $7.4 million in 2004, $12 million in 2005 and a projected $20 million in 2006 “thanks to successfully fulfilling numerous government contracts, including several high-profile ones in the military.”

The Southwest Workers Union believes the gagging of Aldrich by HCRS may well suggest a possible conflict of interest.

"The Air Force wants to walk away from Kelly by the end of next year and leave behind highly contaminated soils and water, clean up procedures expected to take decades, and a contaminated Leon Creek. Failing to connect the cancer epidemic to the contamination essentially lets the Air Force get away with murder, because without this â??missing link' the Department of Defense is never held to account for the suffering of workers and the community,” said Cushing.

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