NEWS2U Health & Wellness
Living Healthy in an Unhealthy World

Sunday, January 07, 2007

When Dollars and Health Collide

An inquiry into whether a toxic chemical is getting into milk and produce proves touchy

The Oregonian

State health officials began asking themselves in 2004 whether a chemical discovered in north-central Oregon's water wells might be creeping into the breadbasket region's produce and dairy milk, threatening its residents' health.

The answer they have signaled they will give in a final report in coming months is that, based on the state's limited food sampling, perchlorate doesn't pose a health danger to area residents. A public message to that effect last year came after intense lobbying from agriculture-related industries.

Intervening correspondence among state officials, obtained by The Oregonian through a public-records request, reflects behind-the-scenes strains of a balancing act between protecting the public health and ensuring the economic well-being of farmers and food processors.

In this case, the tension has reached beyond the state. The federal government has already questioned the validity of the state's work, saying it can't rely on Oregon's tests of milk and produce such as watermelons to assess human health risks stemming from perchlorate.

The little-known chemical, a Cold War orphan, consists of chlorine and oxygen atoms powerful enough to help push Titan missiles and space shuttles skyward. It can be found naturally in soil, but has been discovered in highest concentrations where it has been employed in the making or use of munitions and rocket fuel. Perchlorate has insinuated itself into water supplies across the country, and its 2003 discovery in north-central Oregon wells left state public-health managers wondering whether it was moving into the food chain.

"We're uncertain how much you'll want us to push the food issue," one state public-health manager e-mailed his supervisor Sept. 1, 2004. The manager noted that perchlorate's potential contamination of food was a "touchy issue" -- so much so, he suggested, that it might better remain ignored in news releases about the chemical being found in water supplies.

Nevertheless, at the request of federal agencies, the state embarked on a series of tests designed to determine whether residents of Morrow and Umatilla counties -- especially infants and pregnant or nursing women -- faced health risks from consuming vegetables and milk potentially tainted by perchlorate. The chemical limits the thyroid's uptake of iodine; proper thyroid function is vital for infant brain development and controlling human metabolism.

The state's quest proved even touchier than health officials feared. In February 2006, food-processing interests urged top state health administrators to kill the food study, arguing that consumers would be swayed by "biased and inappropriate" information contained in the study.

Dr. Susan Allan, Oregon's public health director, refused to remove her staff from the study, but concluded that no more food testing should take place. After a flurry of meetings, calls and e-mails involving food processors, Umatilla and Morrow county leaders and other agencies, Allan chastised subordinates for their handling of the study, questioned its value, cut off one avenue of inquiry and helped negotiate a public message disseminated in mid-March.

In it, Dr. Mel Kohn, who as state epidemiologist reports to Allan, wrote: "Based on our limited sampling of foods, the available water data, and what we currently know about health risks from perchlorate, the level of perchlorate exposure for people in Morrow and Umatilla counties potentially sensitive to perchlorate is not a cause for concern. At this time (the state) does not plan to do further food testing."

Kohn, Allan and their subordinates acknowledged that pressure from food processors and agriculture changed their process, but they said they did not compromise on results.

"My job is not about making industry happy," Allan said.

Internal e-mails suggest her staff wasn't always happy with the case's direction, either.

One staff member questioned her decision not to seek data on whether newborns in north-central Oregon were experiencing thyroid problems potentially attributable to perchlorate. Later, the study's lead staff person asked her boss, Kohn, whether the state's wildly conflicting lab results on the presence of perchlorate in food and milk allowed the state to reach any meaningful conclusions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, after unsuccessfully urging the state to conduct more food studies, decided to undertake tests of its own. Results of those tests are pending. The federal agency concluded in a separate review that the state's perchlorate food-testing results were so unreliable that the "EPA cannot use any of the data."

Allan said separate retests of the state's food samples had not shown any indications of health risk and that conducting new tests could "squander taxpayer resources on a fishing expedition."

Allan, in a March 2006 e-mail to a subordinate, referred to perchlorate as "a messy issue here in Oregon," much as it has proved to be at a national level (see accompanying story). She described how monitoring the chemical involves the precautionary principle hitting up "against political and economic concerns, all of which factor into governmental decisions." Where to begin

In summer 2005, the main question facing Kate Toepel as a state toxicologist was precisely where to begin looking for perchlorate in food. Toepel had just started with the state Department of Human Services' Superfund Health Investigation and Education Program, often referred to as SHINE.

SHINE wasn't going about the task on its own. Funding for the work came from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality also had a say.

Early discussions focused on dairy milk and alfalfa. Studies elsewhere had demonstrated perchlorate's tendency to concentrate in milk supplies, and irrigation provided an avenue for the chemical to pass into alfalfa hay consumed by dairy cows and beef cattle.

In some states, such as California, exceptionally high groundwater contamination by perchlorate has been traced to military bases or defense contractors. But in Oregon, environmental agencies have been unable to pinpoint the source of widespread but generally low-level perchlorate contamination in wells in Umatilla and Morrow counties.

The counties are home to a number of large-scale feedlots and dairies.

In the end, the agencies decided that SHINE would focus on immediate potential risks to area residents by testing tomatoes, corn and watermelon from produce stands and grocery stores in north-central Oregon. It also would pull milk cartons from area store shelves for testing.

Toepel and others took produce samples in September 2005.

Produce test results delivered in December by a Colorado lab were largely unremarkable, though one watermelon sample showed high perchlorate levels of 900 parts per billion.

Milk testing results in January were more startling. Two samples of organic milk -- one from a California source and one from Colorado -- showed astronomical perchlorate levels, in the thousands of parts per billion.

The levels were so high that some federal authorities immediately questioned whether they were biologically plausible.

Toepel and others re-examined their methods, dissecting the project in search of explanations. Had the lab erred? Was it possible, as one theory held, that use of a chlorine solution in irrigation lines could lead to the single high perchlorate result in watermelon?

Amid those internal questions, health officials suddenly found pressure mounting from outside. "Cast a long shadow"

Terry Tallman retired from full-time agriculture in 2002. But getting the earth out of his system wasn't like brushing off his boots.

"Farming is part of who I am," he said. "I can't get rid of it."

Agriculture figures prominently in the open spaces of Morrow County, where Tallman heads the County Commission. Morrow is Oregon's seventh-leading agricultural county, with $233.4 million in sales; neighboring Umatilla County is fourth at $274.8 million.

About 60 percent of potatoes grown in Oregon come from the two counties, and food processing accounts for two-thirds of all manufacturing jobs.

In late 2005, when Tallman heard from a local public-health nurse about the state health study of perchlorate, he was at first puzzled why he hadn't heard of it. Then he grew angry.

"What I was seeing," Tallman said, "is that this study could cast a long shadow over all of agriculture in Morrow and Umatilla counties."

Tallman began calling state health administrators, including Allan. He helped arrange a January 2006 meeting in Boardman between area representatives and state health officials.

In early February, the Northwest Food Processors Association also contacted state health officials. In a Feb. 7 letter requesting that a public comment period on an interim perchlorate report be reopened, Craig Smith, the organization's vice president, wrote that releasing food testing results without proper context was irresponsible and would "put the agriculture and food processing industry in the region at risk of severe and unwarranted economic loss."

Health officials initially denied Craig's request for more time, but granted it Feb. 9.

Within a week, according to an e-mail sent by Allan, she had had two conversations with Smith of the food processors. She notified subordinates that food processors had reconsidered contacting the governor "and offered some other conciliatory comments."

Processors sent scorching written comments to state health officials on Feb. 20, accusing them of being "out of their jurisdiction and expertise."

Mirroring objections raised separately by Tallman and others, food processors said SHINE's testing methods -- the sampling of only a limited number of items -- would only alarm area residents without giving them meaningful information. Knowing how much perchlorate is in a particular watermelon, for instance, doesn't help calculate risks without also knowing how much of the fruit humans typically consume. It also does not predict how much is found in cantaloupes or cherries.

To this day, Kohn, Toepel and others involved with the Oregon project defend its original goal of providing limited information that could guide whether more study on perchlorate's presence in food and milk is warranted.

Allan, however, has referred to the project's design as "a fishing expedition" and said it relied on "sloppy methodology."

"I don't think that kind of sampling gets you anything but confusion and chaos," she said in an interview.

Similarly, Allan concluded that confusion would result if the state pursued a regional analysis of newborn rates of hypothyroidism -- a condition consistent with, but not necessarily proving, perchlorate exposure.

The state's public health lab agreed on Feb. 15, 2006, to provide the data, but Allan told Toepel's immediate supervisor to rescind his request for information two weeks later.

"She feels that the findings would be a confounder to the food and water data," Michael Heumann notified colleagues in a March 1 e-mail. "I am not sure I agree that these analyses would confound anything."

In interviews since, Heumann, Kohn and Toepel all say they concurred with Allan's decision against examining the newborn data.

As Allan dealt with outside pressures, new information from the produce and milk tests yielded encouraging signs.

Retesting of the original samples by two of the best-known federal labs in the country -- the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration -- concluded that watermelon and milk contained perchlorate levels no higher than 15 parts per billion. Those levels were hundreds -- even thousands -- of times lower than the three unusually high samples originally found by the private Colorado lab.

The private lab, for reasons it could not explain, also could not duplicate its original findings when the three high samples were retested.

In a March 1 e-mail to subordinates, Allan referred to the new "reassuring results" and the public messages she and other agency representatives had agreed upon the previous day.

The message, which Kohn conveyed publicly two weeks later, was that state health officials had not uncovered any perchlorate dangers to concern the residents of Umatilla and Morrow counties.

From Allan down, state health officials say the conclusion was based on the retesting that showed relatively low perchlorate levels in produce and milk -- not because of pressure from farmers and food processors.

Nevertheless, Allan mentioned both health and politics in her March 1 e-mail.

"I know we will all be glad to have . . . an appropriate conclusion," she wrote, "of both the health risk concerns and of the political firestorm." Conflicting results

With the controversy apparently over, all that was left for Toepel from March on was to write her final perchlorate report.

But the differing test results left her with misgivings, she told Kohn in a March e-mail.

"My scientific conscience is saying that conclusions cannot be drawn about the data for the produce we tested since two labs have conflicting results," she wrote.

But in the following days, Toepel said she felt more comfortable that the majority of test results were valid and the three high original results were unexplainable and could be discarded.

The state's decision to accept the later testing and dismiss the earlier results runs contrary to generally accepted academic standards, said Andrew Jackson, a Texas Tech researcher who has studied perchlorate.

"I have no idea what regulators would do, but academics would say, 'Let's do it again,' " Jackson said.

The EPA prodded the state to conduct the tests again, to no avail. In addition, an EPA review of the state's and private lab's methods concluded in September that record-keeping and sample integrity were so poor that the results were unusable.

The EPA regional offices in Seattle embarked on their own produce sampling in north-central Oregon last year. The results have not been made public but are expected in the next few weeks.

"We don't know whether there's a problem," regional EPA official Dan Opalski said. "But we think more work needs to be done to find out."