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Minden resident questions errors in federal PCB report

By JESSICA FARRISH

The Register-Herald

MINDEN, W.Va. — As those in the contaminated Fayette County town of Minden insist that residents are dying of cancer at an alarming rate, state and federal documents show that a federal public health assessment of Minden completed in 1993 failed to examine the number of cancer deaths in the town.

The report, which was completed by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), also assigned Minden a population that U.S. Census Bureau officials said in August cannot be validated by census records.

Health officials use the number of people in a town and the number of cancer deaths to calculate the cancer death rate of a population.

ATSDR was in Fayette County in the early 1990s to collect information for the report, attempting to assess the impact of PCB exposure on Minden residents. Its goal was to determine the level of health services and education that would be necessary to protect residents from harm caused by PCB exposure.

As federal and state health officials plan a return to Fayette County Oct. 27-28, Minden residents say they believe the last official investigation into the health of their town failed and that errors in the 1993 ATSDR document are among a series of blunders which may have led to more residents dying of cancer due to PCBs.

“It’s intriguing that this happened,” said Sue Workman of Wood County, a retired nurse and former Minden resident. “There’s only two possible explanations. One, accidental. Two, intentional.

“Accidentally would be the biggest coincidence … Intentional begs the questions ‘who?’ and ‘why?’ ”

West Virginia Health Statistics Center data, obtained by a late physician who was conducting a comprehensive study of Minden’s health issues and released in July by the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, suggest that the rate of cancer deaths in Minden could have been twice as high as for the rest of Fayette County during 1979-1989.

The data further suggests that from 1990 to 1999, the Minden cancer death-rate spiked to four times higher than that of the rest of the county before dipping in 2000 to a rate that was nearly equal to the rest of he county.

In 1994, an ATSDR official cited the 1993 public health assessment findings to deny residents’ requests for an in-depth health study at Minden and a five-year registry that would have tracked health symptoms to determine a possible link between PCB exposure and illnesses throughout the town.

State officials caution that the state data utilized small numbers, which creates a wider margin for error. West Virginia Bureau of Public Health Spokesman Toby Wagoner stated in July that more in-depth cancer death data in the state does not support a cancer cluster – an area, over a specific time, that has a higher-than-expected number of cancer cases of the same type or multiple cancers known to be caused by exposure to the same substance – in Minden.

The data released by Wagoner’s office used an estimated population. Because the data had not been adjusted for type of cancer, age, sex, family history, access to health care and other factors that contribute to cancer, it cannot be used to prove that PCB caused any cancers in Minden.

The West Virginia Division of Cancer Epidemiology of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources maintains a “gold-star” cancer registry, as rated by the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, Wagoner said.

The registry is funded through the National Program of Cancer Registries by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), a United States Department of Health and Human Services agency which shares administrative functions with ATSDR.

“It would be highly inappropriate to alarm residents by misconstruing a limited data set,” Wagoner stated, in response to the West Virginia Health Statistics Center cancer death rates.

Meanwhile, those in Minden insist that their town has borne a disproportionately higher number of cancers. Residents Darrell Thomas and Susie Jenkins, a member of the environmental group Headwaters Defense, said that of 251 current residents, 86 have been diagnosed with cancer over the past three years.

Neighbors Nina Carson and Percy Fruit report multiple family members who died of cancer. Both live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood closest to the shuttered Shaffer Equipment Comnpany, a federal Superfund site.

According to the late Dr. Hassan Amjad, former residents also reported higher cancer rates. At the time of his Aug. 29 death, Amjad was creating a cancer registry in Minden to track the number of residents and former residents who had been diagnosed with the disease. He had also collected health data from former residents who had died of cancer or been diagnosed with the disease since leaving Minden.

He reported that his early research suggested a higher number of small cell myeloma cancers and an aggressive lymphoma-like disease among those who had lived in Minden. The doctor believed the cancers were linked to PCB exposure, but said more research was necessary to draw a conclusion.

In August, Amjad told The Register-Herald that of 12 former Shaffer employees, he had verified that nine were diagnosed with cancer and that at least six of the nine had died. He said he believed the Shaffer data could help prove a link between PCB exposure and cancer in Minden.

A 1989 health study conducted by Amjad, Vanderbilt University students, New River Health Center and others showed that over 60 percent of women in Minden had reported a stillbirth or miscarriage.

Amjad’s daughter, Dr. Ayne Amjad of Beckley, has taken over her late father’s cancer study.

Prior to his death, Amjad had charged that governmental apathy to the plight of those in Minden had prevented federal health agencies from conducting studies that could prove a conclusive link between PCB and cancer in the town.

Workman agreed with the late doctor’s assessment.

“Hysterical housewives”

When Workman first talked to ATSDR officials and other federal and state health officials, it was in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. She was living at Minden, which Greenpeace had recently declared one of the most contaminated towns in America.

A single mom, Workman — now a retired nurse and grandmother who resides in Vienna — was a member of Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County (CCSFC), a group that had formed in 1985 when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the industrial chemical PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in unsafe levels at Shaffer, a local mine equipment repair shop. SEC had operated in Minden from 1970 to 1984, after relocating from Scarbro, and workers admitted that they’d stored PCB improperly and dumped it on the ground.

Shaffer workers told EPA agents that they’d also sprayed Minden roads with the contaminant, sold and given it to residents of the racially diverse, working class town to burn for heat and had dumped it at a former landfill at Concho, a cliffside area above Minden which now hosts a multi-million dollar tourist resort.

Like most in her small community at the time, Workman was concerned about the health impact of PCB exposure. She had two small children, and her parents lived in Minden. A neighbor’s son, 5-year-old Bobby Buckland, had recently died after being diagnosed with leukemia.

In 1992, EPA had declared Shaffer Equipment Company to be a Superfund site — a contaminated site in need of clean-up. Although EPA had not placed Minden on the National Priority List (NPL) to receive more pressing federal attention, Congress had passed in 1980 the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), a law that had established a protocol for federal agencies to respond to and compensate residents of contaminated towns. Minden was covered.

Under CERCLA, Minden residents like Workman were guaranteed certain services, including a petitioned public health assessment (PHA). Carried out by ATSDR — a United States Department of Health and Human Services agency that is based in Atlanta, Ga., and shares administrative functions with CDC — the assessment would examine whether PCB exposure was contributing to illnesses in Minden and whether PCB exposure would be likely to present future risks to human health in the town.

Practically speaking, the PHA would be an important document: Under federal guidelines, officials of ATSDR and other federal and state agencies could rely on the PHA to decide whether Minden residents would need more in-depth health studies or community education on the potential health risks of PCB exposure.

Under CERCLA, ATSDR and other federal health officials, along with representatives of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, came to Minden in the early 1990s to evaluate data and information on the release of PCB into the environment and to assess any current or future impact on residents’ health.

Workman said residents were already weary with federal agents at that time, whom they believed were performing a lackadaisical job in Minden, and federal documents seem to justify residents’ concerns: the EPA on-site coordinator at Shaffer had lied about his education and experience in 1985 and had spent $1 million in a failed clean-up effort, federal court records show. Following a second cleanup and testing effort that residents said didn’t test all known PCB dumping sites in the community, EPA angered citizens by leaving and denying citizens’ requests for additional testing.

After the Fayette County citizens’ group gained the attention of national enviromental organizations, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and others, EPA agreed to return to Minden. EPA found more PCB contamination and led a clean-up effort.

Meanwhile, ATSDR, CDC and state health officials were conducting health assessments in the community.

“I met several people from various agencies,” Workman reported recently. “There were a couple things I noticed right away.

“One, they all assumed we were not only ignorant, but stupid. Two, they were more concerned and present when someone like Sen. Rockefeller was in attendance.”

Minden residents were unaware of the statistics kept in Charleston at the time, but they were convinced that they were seeing an excessive number of cancers in their neighborhoods. They reported their cancer concerns to officials and asked about a potential link between cancer and PCB, which the CDC would not begin listing as a probable carcinogen until 1996.

Workman said government health officials dismissed the cancer concerns and told them that PCB exposure in their environment was not as dangerous as they feared.

“The doctor (speaking at a public meeting in the early 1990s) that I remember from the CDC said, ‘It would take 20 years before you’d get cancer from this,’ ” Workman recalled. “I said, ‘So, this is my future? I can expect to get cancer when I’m in my 40s? My children in their 20s?’

“They could never give direct answers, and you could see on their faces they thought we were ‘hysterical housewives,’ a term I’ve come to loathe,” she added.

Amjad, a cancer specialist, also had suspicions in 1989 that the chemical had caused cancer in Minden. In interviews prior to his death, the late doctor said he’d verified residents’ claims to federal and state agents. His professional opinion was that PCB was causing cancer in Minden. The physician had been in favor of a federal, in-depth health study to examine residents’ health.

Conclusion

ATSDR completed the PHA, entitled “Shaffer Equipment Company,” in June 1993. Based on EPA data, several community health studies and blood and fat samples that showed Minden residents had no more PCB exposure than those in the general population, ATSDR judged that a more in-depth health study of Minden wasn’t necessary.

The report also stated that future PCB wasn’t a risk to residents’ health.

Noting the area “around Minden” was economically depressed and dependent on mining, which could lead to health conditions, the PHA reads, “The review of the toxicological and the health information do not indicate high levels of exposure to PCBs at the present time or increases in health outcome that can be linked to PCB exposure.”

Regarding cancer, the PHA notes that Minden residents were concerned about an excess of cancers in the town. When investigating cancer deaths in Minden, the report cited WV DHHR cancer mortality data for Oak Hill from 1979 to 1981 and Fayette County data that was tracked by the National Cancer Institute from 1950 to 1979.

No mention is made of the number of cancer deaths in Minden, although the number of cancer deaths in Minden by year would have been available to ATSDR. State officials do not have records of cancer death rate data that was submitted to ATSDR for the PHA, a WVBPH spokesman said in July.

In the PHA, ATSDR agents also included a questionable population for Minden, writing that Minden had “about 2,000” residents and citing 1980 U.S. Census records as the source. A West Virginia Bureau of Public Health statistician, who asked not to be named, told The Register-Herald that state officials were unable to find a population count for Minden when compiling data from 1979 to 1999 and had estimated the Minden population based on its relationship to the county.

The Census Bureau did not collect official data for the town of Minden during the 1970, 1980 or 1990 Census in Fayette County, Census Bureau Partnership Specialist Devon Reed of the Philadelphia office told The Register-Herald in August. Reed noted that the 1960 Census showed a Minden population of 1,114.

When calculating the cancer death rate for Minden from 1979 to 1989 in July, state health officials used a population of 3,575 – higher than the 2,000 figure used by ATSDR – and obtained a cancer death rate that was over two times higher than that of the rest of the county.

A health study that was not performed on Minden residents was also included in the original PHA, but ATSDR officials caught the mistake and disregarded the data, an addendum to the PHA notes.

Robert Turner, Director of the ATSDR Division of Health Assessment and Consultation, defended the PHA in 1993 and denied residents’ requests.

“Based on the current information and data reviewed, ATSDR’s assessment of the Shaffer Equipment Company site indicates that neither a door-to-door health survey nor a health study are warranted at this time,” Turner stated. “Lastly, ATSDR does not believe that the document is invalid or that it should be completely reconducted.”

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