When Facts Get
in the Way
by J. Wanless Southwick, Ph.D.The federal Environmental Protection Agencys placement of politics before science in recent years is well documented. The agencys feeble justifications for tougher air pollution standards and even shakier claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke are just two examples of EPA "mission creep" away from its original purposeensuring basic environmental safety for the nationand into imposing on Americans the political agenda of left-wing green activists. But the EPAs trouble with the truth didnt begin with the swearing in of its increasingly notorious current boss, Carol Browner. As former Utah environmental officer J. Wanless Southwick details below, the agencys dubious conduct in matters of scientific research goes back almost 30 years.
began investigating environmental pollution concerns as a 20-year-old in 1960 when I worked for the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife as a wildlife aide. That summer I helped investigate pesticide spraying in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado to assess any impact on wildlife. Some of the research on DDT I helped with was later mentioned by Rachel Carson in her worrisome book, Silent Spring.
While receiving my bachelors and masters degrees in entomology from Utah State University, I helped some of my professors investigate various pesticides to see how spraying affected both insect pests and beneficial insects prevalent in the area. Then, after completing work on my masters degree, I served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps for two years.
For several months I did entomological and pesticide research at the Army Environmental Hygiene Agency at Edgewood Arsenal, before being sent to South Korea for a 13-month tour of duty. There I was appointed officer-in-charge of the 5th Preventive Medicine Laboratory. Our job was to find which arthropods (i.e., insects) might be transmitting diseases to U.S. troops and the Korean people. I organized an ambitious project to survey South Korea for ectoparasites that we thought might be involved in the disease called epidemic hemorrhagic fever. It had devastated U.S. troops during the Korean War. Our laboratorys medical entomology team collected fleas, ticks, lice and mites from rodents throughout the southern part of Korea and from an adjacent island. For my medical research in Korea the Army gave me its commendation medal.Hired by the Utah Health Department fter leaving the military, I went on to doctoral studies at Brigham Young University and spent three years learning the principles of ecology. After completing my doctorate in 1971, I was hired by the Utah State Department of Health because of the experience I already had with pesticides. For the next 11 years, I worked for that department, where they immediately put me in charge of a research contract the department had with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Utah was one of 13 states to receive such contracts from the EPA to gather data and evaluate the effects pesticides were having on people and the environment. Rachel Carsons popular book had convinced many people that pesticides were going to produce a "silent spring" as we "poisoned" our planet such that no more birds could be produced. Government funding for these pesticide effects studies was based on the popular assumption that pesticides caused environmental and health problems. EPA assumed that gathering scientific data from places in the country where pesticides were most heavily used could verify the seriousness of these problems. Thus was born the agencys Community Pesticides Study program.Decades of Exposure to Pesticides t its peak, our Utah community pesticide study had 300 people under study for occupational pesticide exposure. They were farmers who had been exposed to pesticides, mosquito abatement workers, pest control operators who sprayed for termites and other pests and crews who sprayed weeds along the railroads and highways. Many of these people had decades of exposure to pesticides. Half of the people studied were matched "controls" who had no pesticide exposure. We brought them in for physical evaluations, tested them to find out what health problems they might be having. We performed a whole battery of tests, ordering every medical exam that could possibly be an indicator of health. We had laboratories and collaborators from universities helping us get the best health data that could be collected.
We also investigated pesticide poisonings. We saw a variety of poisonings, including a few deaths, but all of these poisonings were cases where the instructions on the pesticide labels were not followed. People were just doing dumb things, such as one Utah man who sprayed parathion (a highly toxic pesticide) from a garden hose adapter and soaked himself and his clothes with concentrated parathion. Some people tried to commit suicide by drinking pesticides. Some were successful, some were not. In our Utah tests, the guy that drank malathion died and the guy who drank DDT didnt.
In all, 13 states where pesticide usage was heavy sent medical test data to the EPA. All 13 issued quarterly reports to the EPA, describing what they had done, for year after year. The federal agency, however, did not want the state projects to analyze their own pesticide effects data. While the EPA was supposed to do the analysis and interpret the data, their statistical and computer programming people soon appeared overwhelmed by the quantity of information they were receiving. So toward the end of the study, many of us working in the state projects began analyzing our data to see if we could identify any health effects from occupational pesticide exposure.No Correlated Problems e examined the Utah data, checking each factor to see if people who were occupationally exposed to pesticides were different from those who were not exposed. Of course, we also had to account for smoking and other factors. The effects of smoking were so obvious in our data that I concluded, as a researcher, that if any significant adverse effects from pesticides existed, they should also show up in the data. However, we were never able to identify any health problems that we could correlate with pesticide exposure. This was also the case in each of the other 13 states. None of them were able to come up with any solid indications of adverse health effects from ordinary occupational pesticide exposure.
After 11 years of research and not getting any "positive" results, EPA decided (wisely, I think) to terminate the Community Pesticide Studies. I remember talking with an EPA official who still believed that there were pesticide effects. He commented that the community pesticide studies were "misdirected." Im not sure why he said that, except that EPA didnt find what they had expected to find. The government spent millions of dollars in 13 states exploring every conceivable way to detect the pesticide health effects that EPA thought should be there, but after more than a decade of research we couldnt find those expected effects. Personally, I dont think that constitutes "misdirected" research. We found an answerit just wasnt the answer that EPA wanted. EPA never got around to fully analyzing or publishing the results of this extensive pesticide research.
About this same time, the Utah State Health Department became involved in another health effects study funded by the EPA. This was an air pollution study called CHESS (Community Health and Environmental Surveillance System). There were about five of these studies across the country. The air pollution research branch of EPA knew that I had was directing the Utah community pesticide study, so they asked me to take over leadership of the Utah CHESS study as well. My staff was more than doubled, and I had a whole new group of EPA people to work with.
The reason Utah was selected to participate in this EPA air pollution study was a large sulfur dioxide pollution source, a Kennecott Copper Corporation smelter located in the Salt Lake Valley. It had been in operation for a long time, and because the Salt Lake Valley is sort of bowl-shaped, air inversions would trap pollutants in the valley and subject many people to this type of air pollution. The EPA wanted data on the expected health effects of sulfur dioxide air pollution.
To conduct this study, EPA selected four communities: Magna, which was right underneath the smelters smoke stack and had the highest sulfur dioxide exposure, the nearby community of Kearns, Salt Lake City itself and the more distant community of Ogden. We put air monitors in each of these areas to monitor the amount of sulfur dioxide to which people were being exposed. Then we monitored hundreds of people in those areas in various ways to find out how their health was being impacted by exposure to this air pollution.
We selected these people for different study groups. For example, one group was comprised of people who had asthma. Other groups included elderly people and children. We had some keep diaries and indicate in them when they had health problems. We also brought some people in for pulmonary function testing so that we could learn about their lung capacities. With all of this information, we were trying to document the effects of environmental exposure to air pollution. The other CHESS studies around the United States were studying different kinds of air pollution.EPA Upset at State Access to Data gain, the EPA wanted to analyze the data themselves and they had special forms for us to fill out and mail back to them. However, since we were Utahs state health department, we wanted to know the outcome of the study for our own citizens. So we extracted the information from the data forms and put it into our own computers before we sent the data to EPA. The federal agency was upset with our insistence on having access to the data. They were fearful that our evaluation of the health impact of sulfur dioxide air pollution might come to a different conclusion than theirs.
When we analyzed the data, we found (as in the pesticide study) a strong correlation between cigarette smoking and the health indicators we were measuring. There was also evidence that people who were occupationally exposed to the air pollution, such as people who worked in the smelter itself, were adversely affected (but the effect was smaller than that of cigarette smoking). There was hardly any statistical evidence to indicate that ordinary people living in Magna, Kearns, Salt Lake City or Ogden were adversely affected by sulfur dioxide air pollutants.
After five years, this research project also was canceled because it was not producing the results that the EPA had expected. Neither EPAs big pesticide study nor its air pollution study were ever given very high regard. This always puzzled me, because the results of these tests were pretty clear indicators to us in the Health Department that the effects people had worried about, if present at all, were not strong enough to be of much concern.
Toward the end of the air pollution study, I got involved in another environmental health study. This time the EPA wanted information on the effects of arsenic in drinking water. The community of Hinckley, Utah had naturally occurring arsenic in its drinking waterat concentrations four times higher than the national drinking water standard. Hinckley residents had been drinking this arsenic containing water for decades, ever since Mormon pioneers had settled that area. We proposed a study to the EPA to compare the health of people in Hinckley to the health of people in Delta, another Utah community. Deltas water met the national arsenic standard.
Since arsenic was thought to be a carcinogen, we focused on cancers, particularly skin cancer, which arsenic was alleged to cause. We organized a team of medical professionals, including a dermatologist and a neurologist. We gathered health histories and conducted physical examinations to see if we could detect any effects that might be attributed to the arsenic, including skin cancers and neurological abnormalities.
In this study, we were responsible for analyzing the data ourselves. We found hardly any skin cancers, and the few we did find were more or less evenly distributed between the two communities, so we could not say they were caused by arsenic exposure. Our dermatologist concluded from the examinations he conducted that there was no reason to believe that arsenic was causing people in Hinckley the health problems that it had been alleged to cause. Nor did the neurologist find any arsenic effect either. Our detailed statistical analysis of the data indicated no difference in the health of people with high arsenic exposure compared to people with low exposure.
I reported these results in two national meetings with the EPA. Again, the fact that no adverse effects had been found caused some consternation. Some implied that we must not have done a very good job, or else we would have found the expected effects. I had to point out that if the exposed people were just as healthy as anyone else, the expectation of adverse health effect might be based on a faulty premise. Nevertheless, EPAs regulatory branch pressed forward with its plans to force the people of Hinckley to spend a lot of money to find an alternate source of drinking waterdespite our finding of no adverse health effect.
By this time, interest in these studies was waning because no "positive" results were being found. We also had a change in administration in Utah. Governor Scott M. Mathesons approach to environmental problems was different from that of his predecessor, Governor Calvin C. Rampton. Rampton had taken the advice of professionals in the state health department and he also valued the departments research findings. Matheson tended to cluster politically correct advisors around him, and they developed a hostile relationship with the Health Department.
The loss of support and interest from both the EPA and the state resulted in the downsizing of our environmental epidemiology program until I was the only one left. At that point I decided to leave the Health Department and go into private business.NJ
J. Wanless Southwick now lives in Dietrich, Idaho. He is contemplating a book on his research experiences.