The chief of the federal agency researching polluted drinking water at Camp Lejeune told lawmakers last month that her agency lacks the authority and expertise to conduct a study of cancer frequency among veterans of the North Carolina base.
That comes as a surprise to the dean of the U.S. House, Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who played a critical role in the formation of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 1983.
In a letter Wednesday to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dingell and North Carolina Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr, said they were "dismayed" by ATSDR's reluctance to conduct the cancer study. HHS oversees ATSDR.
"Conducting public health studies of this nature ... was precisely the reason the agency was created," the letter said. "The water contamination at Camp Lejeune is likely the largest environmental contamination in the history of this nation. It is the responsibility of our government to provide a full and complete account of what happened."
The letter provides the first public account of what ATSDR's acting director, Tanja Popovic, said to lawmakers in a meeting last month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the proposed cancer-incidence study.
Dingell, Hagan, Burr, and aides to Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of Florida, met with Popovic on Feb. 26.
Dingell, 87, has been in Congress since 1955 and is its longest-serving member ever. He recently announced he will not seek re-election later this year.
ATSDR did not respond to a request for comment by the Tampa Bay Times.
Scientists say up to 1 million people were exposed to Camp Lejeune's highly polluted drinking water from 1953 to 1987, including about 20,000 Floridians. Water at the Marine Corps base was contaminated with solvents and other cancer-causing chemicals.
In a study released by ATSDR last month, the agency said death rates for all cancers at Camp Lejeune were 10 percent higher than at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in California whose water was never contaminated.
For some types of cancer, the death rate was much greater at Lejeune, according to the report. Examples include: kidney cancer (35 percent higher), liver cancer (42 percent), esophageal cancer (43 percent), cervical cancer (33 percent), Hodgkins lymphoma (47 percent) and multiple myeloma (68 percent).
Some victims of the contaminated water and members of Congress are pushing for a more definitive study on cancer incidence that, unlike the mortality study, would look at those who got cancer but survived.
The lawmakers' letter quoted a provision of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which governs ATSDR's work.
The law empowers ATSDR "in cases of public health emergencies caused or believed to be caused by exposure to toxic substances, provide medical care and testing to exposed individuals, including ... epidemiological studies, or any other assistance appropriate under the circumstances."
The lawmakers said they also were troubled that ATSDR has done little to publicize its work on Camp Lejeune.
"ATSDR has so far done nothing significant to disseminate information about the last two studies on Camp Lejeune other than put them on the ATSDR web site," they wrote. "There was no press release sent to the media and there were, as far as we know, no interviews of the authors by the media.
"Please explain why ATSDR took such a passive approach where these particular studies are concerned."
ATSDR has refused requests by the Times to speak with anyone at the agency with knowledge about the proposed cancer study.
The lawmakers indicated Popovic, ATSDR's acting director, has told lawmakers that a group outside government would be better suited to "assess the feasibility of a cancer incidence study and possibly the study itself." The group is not identified in the letter.
"Given the nature and history of this contamination and the disturbing findings of recent studies released by ATSDR, both Congress and the public reasonably expect the government to conduct this type of study and for your department to leverage its resources to that end," the letter said
The Times noted in a story last week that ATSDR's own scientists wrote a report in 2008 that said a cancer-incidence study by the agency was feasible.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.