Tennessee ranks No. 1 in developmental, reproductive disorder causing toxins

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR Staff
khelms@starhq.com

   Tennessee leads the nation in toxic releases which cause developmental and reproductive disorders, and is in the top five for releases of toxins which can cause cancer or neurological disorders, according to a report released by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
   The PIRG report, "Toxic Releases and Health," released in January, reviewed data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI contains information from industry detailing their annual releases of toxic chemicals, most of which are routinely released to the environment as part of normal operations. The TRI tracks only 700 of the 80,000 chemicals on the commercial market and examines only the largest facilities in a limited number of industries. Facilities releasing radioactive contaminants are not considered in the report.
   According to the PIRG report, Tennessee industries released more than 27 million pounds of harmful chemicals linked to developmental problems such as birth defects and learning disabilities, and more than 20 million pounds of chemicals which have been linked to reproductive disorders. The state ranked No. 2 in releases of neurological toxins, No. 5 in releases of cancer-causing chemicals, and No. 8 in releases of suspected respiratory toxins. Tennessee Valley Authority placed fourth among electric utilities nationwide in emissions of suspected respiratory toxins.
   Hamblen County, which takes in the city of Morristown and the community of Lowland, led the top 50 counties in the nation for releases of developmental and reproductive toxins. Hamblen also ranked third in releases of neurological toxins and 13th in cancer-causing releases.
   Tennessee also led the nation in the release of harmful chemicals over a period time. Cumulative releases from 1987 through 2000 put Tennessee at the top of the chart in releases of developmental toxins, No. 2 in reproductive toxins, No. 3 in neurological toxins, No. 10 in suspected respiratory toxins, and No. 14 in cancer-causing emissions.
   PIRG has called on Congress to increase funding for a pilot program recently begun by the Centers for Disease Control in 20 states which would track diseases related to exposure to environmental chemicals. PIRG wants funding increased to $32 billion to implement a nationwide system that would track chronic diseases in all 50 states and would allow researchers to compare that data with pollution data to determine whether released toxins are associated with an increase in specific diseases. The group also has called upon Sen. Bill Frist to be a leader in this environmental health issue.
   According to the report, creation of a Nationwide Health Tracking Network would enable citizens, scientists and public health officials to better assess and respond to the threats posed by toxic releases. An effective health tracking network would include:
   * Expanded monitoring of human exposure to toxic chemicals so that public health officials have a clearer understanding of the levels of toxicants to which Americans are exposed;
   * Enhanced tracking of chronic diseases -- such as asthma, cancer, birth defects and Alzheimer's -- in order to help evaluate the potential links between these diseases and toxic exposures; and,
   * An early warning system to alert communities to immediate health crises such as heavy metal and pesticide poisonings.
   Communities subjected to high-volume toxic releases have access to only limited information about how those releases might affect their health. In many states, accurate tracking systems for chronic disease do not exist. Only three states -- California, Iowa and Massachusetts -- have both cancer and birth defects registries that meet the highest standards for quality and also report having any system at all for tracking asthma. Almost no states conduct systematic tracking of learning disabilities, neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, metabolic diseases such as diabetes, or auto-immune disorders such as lupus.
   Also, according to the report, scientific information on the health effects of many toxic chemicals is limited or nonexistent and generally is of little use in determining the degree to which residents of a particular area have been exposed to toxic chemicals.
   In Dickson County, near Nashville, the Tennessee Department of Health was alerted in June 2000 to what appeared to be a cluster of cases of cleft lip and cleft palate. The state eventually identified 18 infants born with clefts between 1997 and 2000 -- a rate significantly higher than what would have been expected.
   Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control interviewed 15 of the 18 mothers in an effort to determine whether the clefts had a common cause. While 13 of the 15 mothers reported using a municipal water source, no other environmental exposures (except for smoking and occupational exposure to chemicals) were evaluated. CDC concluded that no single factor appeared to be responsible for the cluster, but noted that a more formal study might be needed if more children are born with the defect.
   Developmental toxins, including toluene, released in Dickson County increased tenfold between 1987 and 1990 and have surpassed 1.3 million pounds each year for the last decade.
   For communities to get the full picture of how toxic emissions may impact their health, they also must have access to information on exposure patterns, according to the report. Unfortunately, while TRI data gives an idea of the amount of various toxic chemicals that are released to the environment, it does not identify where those substances end up. Humans can be exposed to toxic substances through air, water and food, among other pathways. The report notes that it is important to remember that chemicals emitted to the air at a particular site do not necessarily come down in the same place, and that air emissions may cause health effects in the immediate area of a facility or hundreds of miles away. The same is true of discharges to surface water-bodies.
   The PIRG report is available for review at: http://www.uspirg.org.