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Toxin Agency Official Hollers Back

John Steward, a former public health official for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, read our two-part report on the CDC agency and took issue with a few points. Steward carried out the 2001 health consultation for Athens, Ga. resident Jill McElheney, mentioned in the piece. He’s now at Georgia State University’s Institute of Public Health. Here’s what he had to say:

ATSDR/CDC is far from perfect, but doesn’t cover up, mislead, or ignore public health problems. There are real differences among scientists, both outside and within the agency in methods, philosophy, and perspective. Among ATSDR’s biggest problems is lack of resources to do all of the research and investigation that could be done. It frequently has severe deadlines. And it occasionally has political constraints (it is within the government structure). Just like citizens, scientists are frustrated when the available data and the science base are not sufficient to draw firm conclusions; thus, many of the results are "inconclusive." ATSDR scientists don’t have the power to force agencies to do all the things that could be done on a precautionary basis.

The articles put together a number of unrelated events and make it appear that there is a pattern, when in fact there isn’t likely to be. The same occurs with disease clusters- startling occurrences put together look related, but they may not be related at all.

The article also leaves the impression that the cases of polycythemia vera were caused by environmental exposure. Although I am not an expert, I believe most scientists feel that the causes are unknown (it is a genetic disorder).

To ATSDR’s credit, they do review and respond in some way to every request from a citizen, whether it is an individual, congressman, or large group. They really do try to be objective and use science to evaluate concerns. Anytime one steps out of the research/academic/laboratory environment and into the "real world," the job gets messy. Many times ATSDR is asked to do the impossible. Because they listen to the community, often they actually try to respond. There are many reasons for the limitations on ATSDR’s work, but lack of knowing, trying or caring isn’t among them.

The only point I want to refute is Steward’s claim that polycythemia vera couldn’t be caused by environmental exposure because it’s a genetic disorder. The disease is caused by a genetic mutation, yes, but time and time again, oncologist-hematologists familiar with the rare disease have said that environmental factors can cause the mutation. More importantly, they’ve said that the eastern Penn. clusters in question strongly suggest environmental influence — because heredity and occupational factors were ruled out. It’s also well documented that environmental factors can cause cancer, generally speaking.

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