Health study not the answer

To the editor:
In your editorial of April 1, the Midland Daily News said that a health study was the answer to Dowís dioxin contamination. We disagree. A health study doesnít make anyone safer, nor does it reduce anyoneís exposure to dioxin, and thatís the key to protecting public health. A rush to a health study, particularly one that is ill-conceived or incomplete, would just raise more questions and frustrate attempts to determine whether residentsí health is compromised by dioxin contamination.
A more common sense plan is to reduce dioxin levels in the community now, rather than waiting for the results of a study. A first step would be to identify the areas that are the most contaminated with dioxin, and clean them up to immediately reduce exposures. The priority should be on reducing exposures, particularly for children.
The Midland Daily News stated that it was "difficult to care about the minutiae" of a health study, but the devil is in the details. Dioxin causes many long-term health problems that arenít easy to detect. Measuring immune system damage, hormone system disruption, and other subtle effects is difficult. Definitively showing that birth defects and cancer are linked to dioxin is statistically difficult given Midlandís small population size. Any worthwhile study would have to take account of these important details.
A better plan is to comprehensively test soils, remediate where necessary, and set up a medical monitoring program. This would be voluntary, and could, over time, collect data on exposure levels and health measures that might answer some of the important questions about long-term (and subtle) health impacts from dioxin exposure. In any case, a health study should not be used to determine when and how to clean up, nor should it delay cleanup.
The issue of dioxinís links to health effects is important. We know enough now about potential health threats to remediate contaminated soils. The purpose of public health regulations is to prevent harm, not to wait until harm piles up before acting. The focus on a health study instead of remediation may further delay action. A study may raise more questions than it answers, particularly if it is not well-designed.

Director, Environmental Health Project
Ecology Center
Ann Arbor

©Midland Daily News 2003