Monday, October 29, 2007

ARTICLE: Birth-defects/Kelly investigation uncovers additional troubling info

Roddy Stinson: Birth-defects/Kelly investigation uncovers additional troubling info

Web Posted: 10/28/2007 12:04 AM CDT
Roddy Stinson

On the Sleuthing Trail ...

CASE: In a Sept. 27 column — "Kelly-sleuthing trail leads to low-weight, heart-damaged babies" — I responded to a mother who asked if my years-long investigation of environmental contamination at former Kelly AFB and in the surrounding neighborhoods had turned up any information related to "children with disabilities."

After citing information from federal studies produced by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — which found an "excess of reported cases of heart and circulatory system-related defects for ZIP code 78237" — I wrote:

"To my knowledge, no further birth-defect research was conducted in ZIP code 78237 by federal, state or local agencies."

Subsequent inquiries have produced additional "knowledge," including a bit of good news and some troubling new information.

INVESTIGATION (cont.) ... The original ATSDR heart-defect findings were based on an examination of infant death certificates from 1990 through 1995 in three ZIP codes near Kelly.

Subsequently, Texas Department of State Health Services researchers examined reports of all "deliveries" in those ZIP codes in 1997.

They found "no excess in the three broad categories of heart defects found to be significantly elevated in the ATSDR report."

The researchers also examined 1997 deliveries in all other ZIP codes within 1 mile of Kelly and found "no excess (heart defects)."

Why the difference in the two studies?

An ATSDR researcher suggested one possibility:

"Epidemiology info is like an average with ups and downs. The defects we found could have been an 'up,' and subsequent investigation by Texas did not find a continued 'up.'"

That's the good news.

The worrisome news:

The Texas study found that in ZIP code 78237 and two nearby ZIP codes there were "significant excesses of several broad categories of birth defects."

The researchers determined that "the relevance" of that information "was questionable because of the variety of defects within several broad categories of defects, the absence of recurring patterns and the susceptibility to diagnostic and reporting biases."

Nevertheless — and to the state health department's credit — the investigation continued.

In 2005, the researchers reported the results of a study of "a wide variety of birth defects in deliveries" in ZIP codes "near Kelly Air Force Base" from 1997 through 2001.

The most troubling findings:

"Agnesis/aplasia/hypoplasia of the lungs was higher in mothers living within 1 mile of Kelly AFB compared to those living more than 1 mile away.

(Agnesis, aplasia and hypoplasia refer to the absence or incomplete development of the lungs or lung tissue.)

"This was not explained by other factors such as mother's age, and prevalence increased in mothers living closer to Kelly."

"Down syndrome was statistically higher in mothers living over the reported plume (of contaminated groundwater flowing from the Air Force base) after adjustment for other factors."

(Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that slows growth and causes a variety of other problems, including mental retardation and heart problems.)

The researchers questioned the significance of the finding because "it is unlikely that residents of the area had any access to the shallow contaminated aquifer."

That remark and other comments in the report seem to imply a lack of interest in continuing the research.

So is that the end of the state's investigation?

Attempts to get an answer to that question — and several other equally important questions — have been stymied because the lead researcher, senior epidemiologist Dr. Peter Langlois, is "on leave," according to a department spokesman.

I have asked to interview him when he returns.

To contact Roddy Stinson, call (210) 250-3155.