By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Last spring Bill Nelson, the ATSDR liaison for EPA's Region Nine, which includes Arizona, told New Times that follow-up studies are unlikely because the agency has a backlog of other Superfund sites that have yet to be reviewed for the first time.
@body:Citizens, disappointed with the federal government's failure to investigate the health conditions at the Superfund sites, have been equally dissatisfied with state public health investigations. In 1990 the health department released a statistical study that spanned the years from 1965 to 1986. It announced it could find "no evidence of elevated rates of cancer, the health effect of greatest public concern" in the Motorola 52nd Street area. The health department also concluded in a separate study that cancer rates were not elevated in Scottsdale's Indian Bend Wash neighborhoods.
But Dr. Timothy Flood, a health department epidemiologist, publicly acknowledged that the health department's statistical base for these studies was deficient.
ùThe health department did not study pediatric heart defects in the Superfund sites, although heart defects in infants have been linked to TCE exposure in a 1990 University of Arizona study. Pediatric heart defects have risen sharply in the Valley, however. Dr. Marian Molthan, a Phoenix pediatric cardiologist, tells New Times heart defects in newborn babies have increased from eight per 1,000 live births to ten per 1,000 live births from 1962 to 1992. Yet a state registry for birth defects only logs birth defects since 1986, five years after TCE-contaminated drinking-water wells were shut off in Scottsdale.
ùThe health department did not include adult cancer incidence in its study of cancer rates at the Superfund sites. This is because the Arizona Cancer Registry, created by the legislature three years ago to track the incidence of cancer in Arizona, is not expected to provide reliable data until 1997. Largely because of pressure from doctors and hospitals, who objected to mandatory reporting of cancer cases, the registry's operating rules and regulations were not effective until January 1, 1992. "Cancer incidence," which the registry is supposed to gather, is considered the most reliable cancer data because it reveals where a person lived at the time a disease was contracted.
ùThe health department used cancer death certificates for much of its data base. Flood has often said death certificates are not a reliable data source. There are two reasons. First, doctors who write death certificates of cancer patients sometimes list the cause of death as something other than cancer, such as pneumonia. Second, the address of the cancer patient listed on the death certificate may have been different from his address at the time he was exposed to a dangerous chemical.
Thus the health department did not count three of the four cases of lymphoma among the Durkin and Smith families.
"I didn't die," says David Smith, "so they didn't count my case."
David Smith's frustration at not being counted was evident at a meeting last week between neighborhood leaders and Dr. Timothy Flood.
"You say there's no problem," David Smith said. "But your information is not complete."
Flood responded that it would take "tens of millions of dollars" to conduct a thorough statistical study of the site. "It boggles my mind," said Flood. And he added, "I don't think the rates would be high."
"We could say just the opposite," said David Smith. "We could say we think the rates would be high."
There is no scientific reason to be "totally freaked out" about cancer rates in the area, Flood replied.
"How can you say that?" asked David Smith.
@body:While families like the Smiths and Durkins say they are interested primarily in the past, the state health department has focused much of its energy on the present.
In April 1992, the Arizona Department of Health Services released a draft "risk assessment" of the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund Site. In essence the study concluded that people living near the plant were not currently at risk for adverse health effects. This is because the groundwater is presently not being consumed. The state also noted that unless the groundwater was cleaned up, people in the future might be exposed to dangerous chemicals if the traveling plume of contamination ever infected drinking-water supplies.
But the state's first conclusion--that there is no risk living near the site today--is the conclusion that has been repeatedly quoted by Motorola and officials at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
A so-called "risk assessment" is not designed to deal with the past, says Norman Petersen, chief of the health department's office of risk assessment and one of the authors of the study. A risk assessment "looks from the present time to the future. . . . A risk assessment says, 'If we don't change anything now, will anything bad happen?'" Petersen says.
But the EPA did not agree. In fact the federal agency believes historic factors should be examined. A May 1992 letter written by Mike Montgomery, the EPA liaison for the Motorola 52nd Street site, blasted the state risk assessment. Among the criticisms in Montgomery's letter, which was obtained by New Times:
ùThe health department did not tell the public that the study did not assess the risks of "permitted" emissions. ùThe health department factored in risks associated with TCE and other solvents but excluded several chemicals that had been detected in the Superfund site at low levels. ùThe health department did not emphasize that young children, particularly newborns, are "especially sensitive" to the cancer risks of vinyl chloride. (Under the right biological conditions, TCE can degrade into vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen. Several test wells have revealed the presence of vinyl chloride in parts of the groundwater plume.) The EPA says it "anticipates" that health risks associated with vinyl chloride "will increase in the future."