G. CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON
WASHINGTON—The Department of Energy, reacting to congressional pressure and criticism of its epidemiology program, has asked a new advisory panel for help. The move is aimed at defusing an increasingly volatile dispute between environment and health activists and the energy department over the health records of 600,000 DOE nuclear weapons plant workers (The Scientist, Aug. 7, 1989, page 1).
Meeting last month for the first time with his Secretarial Panel for the Evaluation of Epidemiological Research Activities, Energy Secretary James Watkins said he wanted advice on all management aspects of the epidemiology program, including “the utility and feasibility of transferring the epidemiologic research function, including the necessary data, to another agency. Congress is weighing two proposals to give another federal agency the responsibility for the research.
So far, the agency has allowed only DOE researchers to analyze health data that it has maintained on nuclear weapons workers since the mid- 1 940s. DOE has asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to decide a mechanism that would allow the records to be made available. But a spokesman for an independent group known as the Three Mile Island (TMI) Public Health Fund, which has tried for three years to gain access to the records, told the DOE panel that the move was “essentially a stalling tactic.”
Two U.S. senators earlier this year introduced legislation that would remove oversight of the health records from the energy department entirely. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) has proposed an independent advisory panel to set policy for the department’s epidemiology program. Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), in separate legislation, wants to transfer the program to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The DOE advisory panel’s first order of business is expected to be an interim report recommending an immediate increase in staff and funding for the program. Although the program gets $26 million yearly from DOE, $17 million goes to support continuing studies on the survivors of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Of the remaining $9 million, only $3.7 million actually goes to the “mortality studies” that compare former DOE employees’ working conditions with their cause of death. Administrator Robert Goldsmith is the program’s only full-time employee at DOE headquarters.
“I have trouble believing that a one-person operation is very good,” says advisory committee chair Kristine Gebbie, who served with Watkins on a 1987 presidential AIDS commission and who is the new administrator for Washington state’s Department of Health. “I would anticipate that we will suggest they increase the funding and staff.”
The issue of removing the program from DOE is not likely to be resolved until early next year, Gebbie says. Secretary Watkins told the panel that transferring is an “unnecessary extreme,” however, because it might “get lost” at another agency less sensitive to health issues than DOE now is. Since the recent revelations of extensive chemical and radioactive pollution at DOE weapons facilities, the agency has declared waste control and employee health to be its top priorities.
The TMI fund’s request for immediate release of the health records also is unlikely to be acted on until next year, says Gebbie. “I don’t think we feel we need to respond to [TMI’sI pressure” for an early decision, she says.
DOE epidemiologists say they oppose release of the data to groups like the TMI fund, because it would delay ongoing research and obstruct scientists’ “proprietary right to their data.” Shirley Fry, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory epidemiologist, told the panel: “The data are complex and to take the time of people who are experienced with the data to explain them to outside investigators would be counterproductive." Fry also says the data are potentially “inflammatory,” and could cause alarm if improperly analyzed and released to the public. Data released before DOE scientists had analyzed and published them “could lead to spurious and/or conflicting results that would confuse the public and generate irrational criticism that could further undermine public confidence in DOE,” Fry testified in April in response to a TMI lawsuit.
DOE’s Goldsmith testified that, “in my opinion, scientists have the inherent right to publish results of studies that they have designed and collected data for, before such data are made available to other scientists.” But at last month’s hearing, witnesses from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental activist group, gave several examples of government entities that release data before publication. Among the agencies cited was the U.S. Geological Survey, which releases seismic data in a monthly report.
While the NAS panel is expected to take more than a year to complete its review of the scientific issues surrounding the program, the DOE advisory committee faces a shorter deadline on the management question. The two congressional bills to restructure the program are due for debate before the end of the year, and DOE officials would like to prove that the agency is already on the road to recovery before Congress takes matters into its own hands. The panel is slated to meet eight times, and issue two reports, before completing its work next summer.
And the panel is expected to have a lot to say. “I do suggest that there is a better way to do it than the way [DOE is] doing it now,” says chairperson Gebbie. But critics are wary of half-hearted measures. Warns David Lewis, policy and legislation director for Physicians for Social Responsibility: “Minor restructuring, considering the current situation, would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”