Agency Challenges CDC Study Calling Asbestos Safe

Late in 2007, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigators played volleyball at Illinois Beach State Park, a six-acre public playground/Lake Michigan beachfront near Zion, Illinois.

This 20-member emergency-response team wasn’t on vacation, though. They were trying to stir up beach sand and gravel to test for microscopic asbestos fibers, in response to an earlier joint investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC5 (a Chicago television broadcast affiliate of NBC News), which had in the spring of 2007 conducted a joint study to find asbestos samples which reportedly wash up on the aforementioned beach – a process that still occurs today.

The joint media investigation was the result of challenges by the Illinois Dunesland Preservation Society (IDPS) that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, have both downplayed the issue of public health where it concerns the beach for decades.

Jeff Camplin, an asbestos expert working with the IDPS, describes it thus: “For the last 10 years, their mantra is, well, yes, there're pieces (of asbestos) there, and in 99.9 percent of any other situation, children would not be allowed in an area where asbestos is continually found, let alone a 7-and-a-half-mile beach.”

The IDPS has been fighting state and federal authorities to either clean up the beach under EPA Superfund provisions, or allow the agency to display its Asbestos Safety Tips flyer at the beach, a move so far prohibited by the state. Camplin is slated to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, which is investigating allegations of scientific fraud by ATSDR, which issued the most recent report calling the beach safe.

In its report, the ATSDR stated that beach use is not anticipated to harm people’s health because asbestos fibers were found in only 13 of 154 samples, “at levels within or below the EPA’s target risk range”.

The Congressional subcommittee is investigating charges that the ATSDR uses faulty, flawed or skewed science, as was the case when it reported the safety of trailers provided to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita victims – trailers which were so contaminated with formaldehyde that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers were forbidden to enter them.

Camplin has already commented on the fact that the agency seems beset by some “consistent pattern of unethical behavior and scientific fraud”.

The park, also known as Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park, is near the Wisconsin border, about five miles north of where a massive asbestos cleanup at the old Johns-Manville plant on the Waukegan (Illinois) lakeshore was completed in 1991. The old fishing pier near the Midwest Generation coal-fired plant, a half mile south of that, has been closed for several years because of asbestos contamination.

Paul Kakuris, the IDPS president, has also questioned not only the report’s findings but its untimely release, 18 months late but just in time for the Congressional hearing, where preliminary comments state that officials from the ATSDR consistently "deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns."
"Time and time again ATSDR appears to avoid clearly and directly confronting the most obvious toxic culprits that harm the health of local communities throughout the nation."

The ATSDR and the CDC have both declined comment, saying only that Director Howard Frumkin would address all charges on when he appears before the subcommittee on March 12 as scheduled.

The Dunesland group also has filed a complaint with the U.S. Inspector General's Office.

The issue of asbestos at Illinois Beach State Park has been studied any number of times by various state and federal agencies, all of whom issue the same positive safety reports. Kakuris calls the ATSDR report more of the same “junk science”, and contends that the assorted state and federal agencies are complicit in endangering the health of U.S. citizens.

In Kakuris’ favor, reporters note that the Midwest Generation pier still remains closed in spite of these favorable safety recommendations. Officials say that situation is the result of no one knowing who is responsible (the state or Midwest) if someone is injured walking on the old pier. It’s a good escape clause, if one can believe it.

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