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Touted air dioxin test results decade old

Last Modified: Wednesday, September 04, 2013 10:45 PM

By Frank DiCesare / American Press

A federal health agency in early July released a report detailing the results of air dioxin tests conducted around Calcasieu Parish and in Mossville between January 2001 and April 2002.

The report, prepared by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, concludes that levels of dioxin and PCBs in the air in 2001 were unlikely to lead to cancer or “result in harmful non-cancer health effects” in those exposed.

But the report acknowledges that health officials have no historical or current dioxin air data and “cannot conclude whether breathing PCBs and dioxins in outdoor air during other timeframes could harm people’s health.”

“This is the second time we’ve seen ATSDR release a report several years after testing has been conducted,” said Monique Harden, co-director and attorney for Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based law firm that is representing Mossville residents.

“In 2006, ATSDR released a health consultation report on a follow-up dioxin study in Mossville five years after the follow-up testing was done.”

Harden and Mossville community activists published a report in 2007 titled “Industrial Forces of Dioxin Poisoning in Mossville, Louisiana” that questioned why ATSDR had taken so long to do follow-up dioxin testing in Mossville. Harden said the agency never responded to any of the questions posed in the report.

“It is an issue for certain,” she said. “The agency has not come clean as to why they make you wait so long to know the results of their testing.”

The American Press asked to interview ATSDR officials, but its requests were denied. The agency’s health communications specialist, Kathleen Sweeney, insisted the Press email questions to her so she could “determine the best person to speak to.”

Sweeney then gathered responses to the questions and replied to them in an email. Portions of her responses were copied from the agency’s health consultation, which is posted online.

Sweeney did not reply to follow-up emails that asked whether the same PCB and dioxins tests have been conducted in Mossville and Calcasieu Parish since 2002.

The initial air dioxin tests were part of the Calcasieu Parish Air Monitoring Study, a volunteer effort of the Lake Area Industry Alliance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Larry DeRoussel, LAIA executive director, said another air dioxin study in Calcasieu Parish is not needed.

“There have been no changes in the operations in any of the facilities that would cause the data to change significantly since the last study was done,” he said. “There’s really no basis to do another study. Plant operations are monitored closely by the plant managers, EPA and DEQ. It’s not like things aren’t being watched.”

Harden, however, said she takes issue with the section in ATSDR’s report in which the agency used the mean level of 27.45 femtograms per cubic meter to assess Mossville’s dioxin levels rather than the maximum amount — 86.25 femtograms per cubic meter — recorded during sampling.

A femtogram, a microscopic unit of measure, is equal to one quadrillionth of a gram.

George Pettigrew, ATSDR’s Region 6 director, was unavailable for comment, as was Brenda Cook, EPA’s site assessment manager for Region 6.

In July, ATSDR also announced the results of comparisons of PCB and volatile organic compound levels in the blood of residents from Calcasieu Parish and Lafayette Parish back in 2002.

The ATSDR analyses concluded that residents of Lafayette and Calcasieu parishes had similar levels of PCBs and VOCs in their blood.

ATSDR conducted blood dioxin testing in Mossville in December 1998 and issued the results to the public four months later. “So it can be done much sooner,” Harden said.

Sweeney declined to comment on whether ATSDR has taken blood samples from Calcasieu Parish residents since 2002.

The ATSDR report on PCBs says the chemicals “can harm our immune and reproductive systems” and that “workers exposed to high levels of PCBs have shown that the exposures can cause an increase in certain cancers, and nerve and heart disease.” The report also says studies suggest “PCBs may be associated with diabetes, and may harm our endocrine system.”

Harold Stevenson, a retired professor of environmental science at McNeese State University, said the timing of ATSDR’s recent announcement is hard to explain or justify. But, he said, the agency’s blood dioxin tests conducted in Mossville and around Calcasieu Parish “were remarkable.”

“They had unlimited funds; they had good laboratory backup; and they had excellent statistical control,” said Stevenson, who spent 30 years teaching at McNeese. “To have a study in the environment is very difficult because there are so many factors involved. You have to control your statistics from all those factors and try to measure the right things, and they did that.”

Stevenson said that if ATSDR returned to Mossville and retested the air and its residents today, the results might be even more positive than those released in 2006. He said the technology used in environmental testing has improved greatly since 2001. He added that environmental laws are much more strict on industry today than they were a decade ago.

ATSDR will accept public comments on the reports until Sept. 9. But Sweeney did not say why the agency is accepting comments on data that are more than a decade old.

Harden said she and Mossville residents will submit comments to the ATSDR before the deadline.

Online: www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/mossville/publications.html.

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