The recent rash of uterine cancer in young girls isn't the first time illness has visited the neighborhood near the Defense Depot in South Memphis, says Doris Bradshaw. She says cancer is common in her community and readily cites several instances of trees and dogs in the area suddenly and mysteriously dying.
Federal officials -- armed with two studies and a litany of explanations -- are telling area residents the depot isn't to blame, but some are questioning the government's testing methods and point to the community's history of illness.
"They didn't investigate the [health] history of the community, so their report shouldn't be called a health evaluation," Bradshaw says. "It should be called a site evaluation, because it tests if the depot is safe for industry."
The Defense Depot is a 640-acre compound used by the army since the beginning of World War II to warehouse supplies -- including some chemical weapons. The depot was declared a federal superfund site due to heavy chemical contamination. The dangerous chemicals are being removed to make way for industry.
Though her combative and repeated calls for justice have been discounted by some in the mainstream environmental community, the 40-year-old Bradshaw isn't alone in her belief that the depot is responsible for the neighborhood's health problems.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) crafted a report designed only to calm the fears of the neighborhood, says Franklin Dmitryev, an environmental activist who has studied both of the agency's reports and written extensively about the depot.
The ATSDR took the army's records on dangerous chemicals, determined how or if they could leave the compound, the likelihood of exposure, and the possibility of illness due to these exposures. Each abstraction was done with theoretical computer modeling.
Based on their methods, Dmitryev isn't surprised the ATSDR found no cause for alarm. "With over 100 chemicals identified at the site, there are no data to determine effects of exposure to some of them and almost zero to determine effects of exposure to combinations of them. But the assessment uses comparison levels based only on wild guesses to conclude that there can be no harm to people," Dmitryev wrote in an issue of News and Letters. "Uncertainty is stressed when it means that we can't be sure anyone was harmed. But uncertainty is downplayed when it means we can't be sure people are not harmed." The report doesn't take into account that children are more susceptible to the effects of chemical exposure, he adds.
Dmitryev cites the case where a bar graph compared the safe level of a potentially deadly chemical with the amount found at the depot. At first glance the graph seemed to indicate levels twice as high as deemed safe, but when Dmitryev looked closer he realized the numbers in the graph were depicted as a logarithm, meaning the presence of the pesticide was actually at least 40 times the safe level.
Senior ATSDR environmental epidemiologist John Crellan says the dose is the determining factor when it comes to proving illness and the data don't prove anyone has been harmed. While conceding some contamination has reached the groundwater, Crellan says the cancer rates in the neighborhood are within a normal range.
He does admit the government's testing only covers the potential for exposure in the past 10 years and that the only off-site soil testing was done on the fence-line of the depot.
Chemicals wash out of the environment, Bradshaw says, but their effects often don't show up until years later. Just because the government can't find chemicals today, she says, doesn't mean they aren't to blame for the neighborhood's health problems.
Dmitryev says the cancer rates are misleading because the rates are adjusted against the national average for black people, who are more likely to be exposed to chemicals. He also says the results were watered down because they included parts of the neighborhood not likely to be exposed to chemicals.
Defense Depot neighbors aren't the only ones to have complaints about the ATSDR, says Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, an organization that helps citizens fight chemical pollution.
He says in 1991 an independent government study found 80 percent of ATSDR's health assessments were of "poor or uneven quality" and many were "seriously deficient as public health analysis." The agency was forced to redo many of these studies and claims to have mended its ways, but the only significant change is a stepped-up public relations campaign, Lester says.
The ATSDR reports are also misleading because they don't bring to light gaps in the available research, Lester says. For example, they know contaminants have reached the groundwater but haven't taken the next step and tested the nearby wells.
"Don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue appears to be the strategy on which ATSDR operates. In doing so, ATSDR avoids the hard issues of what happens when people are exposed to toxic chemicals from contaminated sites," Lester wrote in his group's newsletter.
Lester also worries that the ATSDR denial reflex could compromise our nation's ability to respond to a chemical or biological terrorist attack. The agency initially dismissed the risk of dust from the World Trade Center collapse but was later forced to investigate its effect on victims.
Although cancer rates since 1950 have increased by 42 percent, public health researchers still don't have the tools to track outbreaks of disease. The United States Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) wants to network public health agencies to allow citizens to find out what kind of diseases occur frequently in their community. Then they could compare this data against the toxic release inventory available online and come to their own conclusions about the effect of local chemicals.
"The depot is a great example of the need for more information to establish a link, if there is a link, between industry and public health effects," says Jill Johnson of the PIRG Southern field office.
Tennessee industries released 72 million tons of toxic chemicals with links to neurological and developmental disabilities. Shelby County ranks in the top 25 U.S. counties for these same chemicals, according to PIRG data.
Drawn into the struggle for environmental justice after her mother died of cancer, Bradshaw continues to fight. Organizing within her community and with other poisoned neighborhoods around the country, she has seen the pattern of abuse against poor and minority neighborhoods. She plans a lawsuit and is demanding a health clinic in her neighborhood, door-to-door health assessment, and real data concerning risks of exposure.
"We shouldn't have to prove anything. The Defense Depot, as a good neighbor, should prove to us they didn't hurt us," Bradshaw says. "African-American history -- through slavery, discrimination, Agent Orange, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments -- shows us not to trust our government. Period."
You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.