By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Kathleen and Jerry Durkin are not the only amateur epidemiologists who seek answers in the absence of sound scientific studies conducted by the state and the federal government.
ùIn 1989 a Motorola worker who suspects she was permanently disabled by an exposure to workplace chemicals began collecting information on other Motorola workers who may have been damaged by toxins on the job.
ùIn 1991 a theology student conducted an exhaustive telephone survey of the neighborhoods bordering the Motorola 52nd Street area, and came up with a staggering number of illnesses.
ùIn early 1992, a state legislator, Tom Smith, walked door to door on Brill Street close to the Motorola 52nd Street plant. After Smith noted what he thought was an "unusual" incidence of disease, he asked the state health department to conduct a study of the area. The health department agreed, but the study was never conducted because Motorola and neighborhood activists disagreed on its format.
ùLast month an advocacy group for Hispanics began gathering information on health conditions of former workers at a satellite Motorola plant in South Phoenix, claiming that the plant was responsible for unsafe working conditions and environmental contamination that affected the health of the mostly minority work force. Motorola denies those allegations.
Motorola has repeatedly said there is no proof that chemicals used by its plants have ever caused ill health effects.
"The situations you are describing are frightening to people," says Motorola spokesperson Lawrence Moore. "Especially when you can't really point to the wheres and the whys. That is understandable. That they should look for a cause is also understandable. If I am struck by cancer--and I understand one out of three people are--the first thing I am going to ask is why. And then I'm going to look around for the answers. "That you ask the questions is reasonable. That you pose an allegation without something upon which to base it is another issue entirely. We know of nothing in our processes that would cause diseases.
"The safety of people who work at Motorola and people who live around these plants have always been of paramount importance," says Moore. "We really do believe we are a responsible corporate citizen and that we take the right steps to ensure that we are a benevolent presence."
Last spring Motorola's public relations office issued a communiqu‚ titled "1992 Overview of Environmental Issues." In it, Motorola cites federal and state studies that found no health problems in either the Indian Bend Wash or the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund sites. "Motorola, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the federal agency responsible for the toxic substances and disease registry all have evaluated the potential health impacts. They have found no adverse impact on public health," the document says.
The Durkin and Smith families, who unbeknownst to each other are coping with the same misfortune, have reason to doubt the governmental studies that back up the high-tech firm's public pronouncement.
@body:The Durkin and Smith families are not alone. Health is the chief concern of most people living in or near Superfund sites, says Dr. Thomas Burke, assistant professor of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University.
Despite the fact that health is a topic of intense interest to those who have been exposed to toxic waste, the federal agency created in 1980 to monitor health effects of people living on Superfund sites is dramatically underfunded. Last year, for instance, the ATSDR received only $50 million of the total $1.6 billion that went to Superfund.
In 1991 a panel of nationally known scientists reviewed ATSDR health assessments of Superfund sites for the General Accounting Office (GAO).
Health assessments are required by federal law at every Superfund site, and should be designed to "evaluate data and information on the release of toxic substances into the environment" in order to assess current or future impact on neighborhood health, develop health recommendations, and identify areas where further studies are necessary, according to ATSDR. The agency is also charged with conducting follow-up, in-depth health studies, maintaining registries of people who have been exposed to chemicals such as TCE, and updating lengthy "profiles" of health effects of toxic substances.
Burke, a member of the GAO panel, says the ATSDR's job of compiling profiles and registries has been good. But Burke and other members of the GAO panel were sharply critical of the ATSDR's health assessments.
"Because ATSDR health assessments have not fully evaluated the health risks of many Superfund sites, communities have not been adequately informed about possible health effects," the 1991 GAO report says. The report found the ATSDR's conclusions "overly general," "incomplete," "of poor and uneven quality" and "of limited use for indicating needs for follow-up health studies."
The GAO panelists also criticized the ATSDR for rushing through health assessments to meet a deadline imposed by the Superfund law. In the 15 months leading up to December 1988, for instance, the ATSDR wrote 785 health assessments.
"To produce this volume of assessments," the GAO wrote, "ATSDR had to ignore its own guidance requiring visits to sites as needed and limit its analysis to reviews of often incomplete or dated file material."
"The majority of health assessments written prior to December 1988 are pretty worthless," says Dr. David Ozonoff, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health and a member of the GAO panel of scientists. Ozonoff says ATSDR's studies, even in the wake of the GAO criticism, are "steadily improving," although still "quite spotty." One of the problems with the ATSDR studies is that they rely on data provided by the polluter or the EPA. The agency has neither the authority nor the funding to collect its own data, says Burke.