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Is our health at risk?

Ten years after the mass evacuation at Love Canal the answer is as uncertain as it was in those traumatic days when President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Hugh Carey made a political decision to relocate hundreds of families. We are about to make another political decision that it's all right for people to go back.

Tucked at the bottom of a recent evaluation that will permit revitalization efforts to go forward, a panel of independent scientists stuck in this qualifier: "The comparison approach to determining habitability in the Love Canal Emergency Declaration Area remains a viable approach for the Love Canal. This approach is not considered the best theoretical approach as would be a full-risk evaluation for all Love Canal chemicals. However, the lack of appropriate toxicological data for the many chemicals in the canal and the lack of standards of acceptability for these chemicals makes the exposure and risk assessment unworkable at this time."

This after 10 years and expenditures approaching $250 million. One wonders if State Attorney General Robert Abrams will affix this warning to the deeds when the sale of homes begins.

There are indications this government indifference to the chemical exposure issue -- one that potentially affects every resident of Western New York -- may finally be addressed, but again we are talking of five to 10 years before there is any better understanding of the issue.

The International Joint Commission in its report to the United States and Canadian governments on implementation of the 1987 Water QualityAgreement said the two nations should "give high priority to human health.

The commission's Science Advisory Board will recommend at the IJC biennial meeting in Hamilton Oct. 12 that the governments consider a three- to six-year evaluation of health in the Great Lakes ecosystem covering insects right up the chain of life to humans.

Few Erie and Niagara county residents live more than a mile or two from a dump; the air they breathe carries toxic chemicals from plants hundreds of miles away; there is an impact on drinking water and fish from the Niagara River and Lake Ontario.

Although two prestigious scientific groups reported more than two years ago that people in the Great Lakes region carry a higher body burden -- up to 20 percent -- of chemicals than elsewhere in the United States and Canada, little has been done to follow up.

State officials are taking a modest step in this direction as they plot a new method of setting priorities for the cleanup of the 1,093 toxic waste sites in the state. Enlarging on an EPA system, the proposed state ranking system will give heavy weight to health impacts and threats to the biosystem.

The Science Advisory Board's meeting in Buffalo explored the exposure issue in some depth, but the bottom line was a unanimous position that governments owe an honest evaluation of the threats from toxic chemicals. The panel itself was careful to take no position on the risk.

But Dr. Jack Vallentyne, a respected senior Canadian scientist, said, "Many people see deformities in birds and tumors on fish and they wonder if what is happening to wildlife is happening to humans." Dr. Alfred M. Beeton, head of a major U.S. Great Lakes lab and co-chairman with Vallentyne of the panel, said the goal is "to bring together a broad range of scientists, doctors and other research people to look at the overall health of the lakes ecosystem."

This may be a tough assignment because repeatedly throughout the three-day session it was noted that few in the various fields speak the same language nor do they attempt to link issues that may affect wildlife to effects on humans.

Dr. Warren Flint, associate director of the University at Buffalo, described a project at the university attempting to evaluate human health impacts and suggested that "we may be asking the wrong questions."

Walter A. Lyon, a U.S. member of the bi-national science board, argued that rather than discussing zero discharge of toxics, as provided in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the nations "should be talking about zero exposure" to harmful chemicals. He said no new chemicals should be discharged into the lakes until proven safe and any current discharge should be "dramatically, significantly reduced" if there is evidence of harm.

"I'm not talking about scientific proof, I'm saying if there is any evidence, any intuition, any hunches that the chemical is dangerous, we should take every reasonable step to end the discharge, not wait for proof."

Contrast this with the approach of the Niagara River Toxics Management Committee that only 10 persistent toxic chemicals found in the river merited designation for a 50 percent reduction over the next decade. Or the lackluster pace at which the two nations are moving to clean up 42 grossly polluted harbors and waterways. Or the disclosure that the United States is cutting funding to its Great Lakes effort.

Both members of the Science Board and State Environmental Commissioner Thomas C. Jorling hit a common theme in back-to-back meetings.

Vallentyne called for a biosphere agreement binding nations to a global attack on pollution and warned that even the best efforts to restore the lakes' ecosystem will fail unless piecemeal international efforts are replaced with a comprehensive attack on issues such as climate modification and destruction of the ozone layer. He said work on the Great Lakes could serve as a model for a global attack on threats to the ecosystem and without such effort "people, industries and government in the Great Lakes are losing control of their destinies."

Jorling said the legacy from the past, such as a Love Canal or Hyde Park, have had mainly local or regional impact, while the actions of this generation will have major, global impact unless trends are reversed.

One recalls the unfettered use of asbestos, a wonder product that reduced fire hazards, and that years later it was learned that the fibers could cause lung cancer. We are still debating the impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

People want to know the effect of toxic chemicals on man. Government (that's us) and science (working on behalf of us) owe some answers. As some of the panel and many others are fond of saying, "Just getting up in the morning involves some risk." But we know the odds of getting cancer from smoking or the risks in driving a car. Little is known about the risk of living next to Love Canal or the other chance exposures in a chemically based society. And it would be nice at least to know the odds.

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