Toxic Triangle research mystery deepens

Greg M. Schwartz

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San Antonio Metro Health is the agency currently charged with researching the question of what's been causing the health problems in the city's “Toxic Triangle” by the former Kelly Air Force Base, such as the elevated rates of liver cancer. Most citizens of the affected region believe that chemicals from the toxic plume coming from the base are the cause, despite a lack of conclusive research from various government agencies.

While there's been much inconclusive debate over what the cause is, the unusually high rate of liver cancer is a fact.ATSDR (the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) got ripped by a new Congressional report last month that concluded the agency “often obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis, and fails to zero in on toxic culprits,” citing Kelly as a primary example. But while ATSDR had failed to connect high rates of liver cancer to the Kelly plume, the agency had at least recognized that those high rates of liver cancer do exist in a 2001 report.

But for some reason, Metro Health still seems to be debating this. A 2007 Metro Health study took another look at data from 1995-2003. The study was “inconclusive due to the difficulty in case follow-up” but also “did corroborate previous findings of increased liver cancer in Bexar County.” Yet an assessment reported in January 2008 had a Metro Health panel of scientists look at a previous report on liver cancer in Southwest San Antonio “to determine if it appropriately answered concerns about the possibility of elevated liver cancer in parts of Bexar County, specifically related to contamination from Kelly Air Force Base.” This is some mystifyingly contradictory language.

ATSDR had already concluded years ago that there were indeed elevated levels of liver cancer in several zip codes near the base, so the QueQue wonders why Metro Health is still talking about those high levels as a mere “possibility?” The panel concluded that the previous feasibility study was deeply flawed in its lack of data. But the panel then oddly concluded that no further feasibility study was warranted at the time and instead suggested that “other ongoing activities” be pursued, such as a study of possible aflatoxin exposure (which apparently refers to a Texas A&M study of tainted tortillas.)

“It is outrageous, we've been eating tortillas since day one,” said longtime area resident and activist Robert Alvarado regarding the aflatoxin theory. Alvarado says he and others served tortillas at a meeting after the aflatoxin theory had first been floated two years ago, in order “to protest the ridiculousness” of the concept.

“All we want is the truth,” said Alvarado.

Many of Metro Health's assessments in their 45-page collection of environmental studies from 2003-08 are based on ATSDR's now dubious conclusions, so it would seem that Metro Health has quite a bit of work to do to reassess some of that work.

The QueQue has a plethora of questions for Metro Health and will finally have a chance to have them answered during a visit to their facility on Monday morning. More questions will be raised at Tuesday night's meeting of the Kelly Restoration Advisory Board, and still more at the EPA report back of the latest vapor tests on Wednesday. Stay tunedâ?¦