Friday, September 24, 1999

CDC rejects Fernald study

Neighbors' hopes dashed

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HARRISON — Fernald area residents may never know for sure if the elevated number of lung cancer deaths in their community was caused by radon gas released from a government-owned uranium processing plant, officials said Thursday.

        They know that it is a good possibility. A 1998 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on statistics rather than actual cases of reported illness, told them so.

        But they were waiting for an epidemiological study — one based on the lung cancer striking their friends and neighbors as well as the estimated amount of radon gas they inhaled from the air.

        That type of study was dismissed by CDC scientists in a report released Thursday to the Fernald Health Effects Subcommittee (FHES) meeting. The panel of health and science experts and community and worker representatives is charged with guiding the investigation into alleged medical damage done by the Crosby Township uranium processing plant that operated from 1951 to 1989.

        The CDC report said there isn't enough reliable data to do the epidemiological study, and an attempt likely would take 10 years and cost more than $18 million.

        While other studies are exploring possible health links to production at Fernald, an epidemiological study would have directly linked specific deaths of area residents to the plant.

        “We wanted it to put closure and for (the Department of Energy) to take responsibility for their actions, so it doesn't happen again,” said Edwa Yocum, FHES community representative. “But I know it will never happen.”

        Also a member of Fernald Residents Against Environmen tal Safety and Health (FRESH), Ms. Yocum keeps an area map dotted with push-pins representing people who have become ill — they think due to Fernald-related exposures.

        Although residents and workers have won an unprecedented $100 million in separate lawsuits against NLO Inc., which ran the plant between 1951 and 1985, they never received the satisfaction of being able to point a finger at Fernald. Their awards were made based on fear of illness and declining area property values, rather than on actually becoming sick and dying as a result of living and working around the site.

        “If, down the road, there is ever a study done that proved that these cancers were caused by living there, then there could be another lawsuit. ... That door was left open” in the settlement, said FRESH founder Lisa Crawford.

        Some had hoped the epidemiological study would provide that evidence.

        But CDC scientists said such hopes are not realistic.

        There simply isn't enough hard data to create a reliable study, said Paul Garbe, chief of the CDC's radiation studies branch epidemiologic section.

        “I can't say right now that there is or isn't a health effect” from Fernald exposures, he said.

        CDC began its health impact investigation by figuring out how much radiation actually left the site, in what form, and the associated health risks.

        In 1998, a Fernald dose reconstruction study showed that the major hazard was lung cancer-causing radon gas emitted from two waste-filled concrete silos. It spread out in significant concentrations through a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius of the site.

        The next step was a statistical, theoretical analysis of an estimated 46,000 people who lived within that boundary during plant production years.

        CDC reported last year that among those people, an estimated 85 additional lung cancer deaths were likely to occur based on their proximity to Fernald. But it did not prove that they happened.

        The epidemiological study could have provided the count of actual deaths.

        Bob Hanavan, a FHES community representative, said more, broader studies are needed to find all the answers. “Whenever there's a health effect, there most certainly is a cause,” he said.


- CDC rejects Fernald study
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