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An independent review panel found last week that the Center’s Great Lakes Danger Zones project was based on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that used insufficient data. But that’s hardly a surprise, according to the chief adviser for the original report.

The report, originally scheduled for release in July 2007, was undertaken by the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at the request of the International Joint Commission, an independent group that advises the United States and Canada on the Great Lakes. The Center published the report in February 2008, after the CDC continued to delay its publication. The report’s findings include a warning that “more than 9 million people who live in the more than two dozen ‘areas of concern’ — including such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee — may face elevated health risks from being exposed to dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, lead, mercury, or six other hazardous pollutants.”

The Institute of Medicine, an 11-member panel that conducted the review, said the link between pollutants in the lakes and elevated health risks is an overstated conclusion not backed by enough evidence.

But Dr. Christopher De Rosa, former director of toxicology at the ATSDR, told the Center that these findings are hardly unexpected. The IOM study looked at the CDC report as a traditional epidemiological study, instead of what the report actually was — a compilation of existing information to be made available to the public, said De Rosa, who oversaw the original report and pushed for its release.

“My hope was that [the CDC report] would serve as a stimulus to promote further evaluation of what clearly are contaminated environments, and what may be an issue in respect to health,” De Rosa said. Instead, he said the questions directed at the report were intended to solicit a negative perspective, focusing on what the report doesn’t do as opposed to what it does accomplish.

While the IOM acknowledges that CDC never intended to provide a definitive epidemiological finding as to the hazards present in the Great Lakes, an IOM spokesperson argues that CDC could have taken the additional step. The CDC holds that they lacked the data to complete such a comprehensive finding.

But Sheila Kaplan, the investigative reporter behind Great Lakes Danger Zones who spoke to De Rosa for her piece, has a different perspective. “The report was intended to serve as a road map for further study, not as a definitive epidemiological survey,” she told the Center. “As we noted in our story, CDC can not make a final determination of cause and effect, because unfortunately, they are not collecting the data that would be necessary to do so. Until they do, the 9 million people living in the Great Lakes region deserve to be informed of the risk.” And De Rosa stressed the importance of releasing information so it can be vetted by the scientific community, which in turn determines what else needs to be done. “That is the give and take of science, its strongest virtue,” he said. “It’s self-correcting by virtue of repeated testing.”

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