Onion-odor report: New questions arise

Tue, 07/03/2007 - 4:03pm
By: Ben Nelms

State records indicate most people in north Fayette and south Fulton counties who reported illnesses following last summer‘s release of chemicals that smelled like onions were never contacted by state or federal agencies for a follow-up health report.

A Georgia Open Records request by The Citizen to obtain the information that formed the basis of the study’s conclusions generated more questions than answers because the follow-up documentation directly related to residents’ ongoing concerns was missing.

Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in conjunction with Georgia Division of Public Health (DPH) and other agencies recently completed the official Health Consultation on the possible adverse effects of emissions of the chemical odorant propyl mercaptan and the organophosphate pesticide ethoprop, also known as MOCAP “wash water,” from the Phillips Services Corp. waste treatment plant near Fairburn into the communities of north Fayette and south Fulton counties last May and June.

The Health Consultation concluded that “the release of propyl mercaptan posed a public health hazard because it likely caused temporary adverse health effects during the time of release into some communities near PSC.”

As for short-term adverse effects of ethoprop or long-term effects of either chemical, the Health Consultation concluded that no public health hazard exists.

Many of the issues central to residents’ concerns were not addressed in the study, while other issues seemed to some residents to have been given less than serious consideration.

Attempting to reconcile the disparity between the Health Consultation’s findings and the questions from many residents over those findings, The Citizen submitted a request to DPH Chemical Hazards Program Director Jane Perry to obtain copies of all documentation and all data from all agencies involved in the ATSDR Health Consultation.

Contained in the Open Records material received by The Citizen was no documentation of communication or data, including summaries or internal memos, from the various agencies on topics such as requests to examine or copy residents’ medical records relating to the exposure, requests to contact residents’ physicians or what that documentation might or might not have shown.

There was documentation on the summaries of agency(ies) follow-up with one resident, even though the Health Consultation said seven residents were contacted.

The Open Records material contained no documentation of contacts with veterinarians or wildlife biologists to confirm that animals illnesses had no link with the chemical release.

The material contained no instances of verbal/written follow-ups with pet owners or summaries of interviews with PSC employees who claimed to have been sickened.

A number of emails that were included in the Open Records submission did address statistically significant animal illnesses in the area of the PSC plant during the time that residents were reporting illnesses, but were not mentioned in the Health Consultation.

Apparently unknown by ATSDR, DPH and CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) at the time, Perdue University academic veterinary epidemiologist Dr. Larry Glickman made a presentation at a September 2006 meeting in Washington, D.C., where instances of canine illnesses in the Fairburn area were noted.

According to a Sept. 18 email circulated to the various agencies participating in the Health Consultation, “(Glickman) was presenting syndromic surveillance data from Banfield Clinics (a nationwide chain of veterinary clinics located inside PetSmart stores) looking for dog symptom data for a three-month period beginning Memorial Day, in an area in a 20-mile radius of the PSC plant in Fairburn.”

That email, sent by at former CDC employee now working at University of Minnesota, triggered numerous responses and subsequent contacts with Glickman.

By his own assessment, Glickman said in an Oct. 27 email that, “Control charts run for the GI (vomiting and diarrhea) syndrome showed unusually high and statistically significant activity for dogs living 0-10 and 10-20 miles from (the) PSC plant during weeks 25 and 26 (June 18-July 1) in 2006, but no unusual activity for dogs living more than 20 miles from PSC.”

In another email sent to DPH on Nov. 13, Glickman acknowledged the occurrence of “false positives” in surveillance systems, yet adding that “I was impressed today at our meeting when we reviewed the Cumsum (cumulative summary) findings for dogs near Fairburn, that there was a signal for dogs with GI syndrome starting during the period of June 26 until about July 17, in 2006. SatScan (software) also identified a cluster during this period of time for the area northeast of the Phillips facility.”

In yet another email by Glickman to DPH Epidemiology Section Chief Dr. John Horan, the Perdue researcher said the university had 10 people working on the project part-time without pay.

“We are all participating because we are interested and think it is important,” Glickman said. “Eventually, I think there will be sufficient findings that can form the basis of a master’s thesis or investigation by an EIS (Epidemic Intelligence Service) officer. For example, one could try to validate our findings in cats and dogs as well as look for pet-human similarities in clinical signs. This can be done by doing a survey of other veterinary hospitals in the area assuming they have searchable medical records or by doing a door to door survey of pet owners in the community.”

Door to door surveys of affected residents in the opening days of July was requested by The Citizen after newspaper staff spent time in neighborhoods and identified more than 150 people manifesting one or more of a handful of symptoms in less than six hours, the same symptoms included in the Health Consultation.

The Citizen was told by Fulton and Fayette counties, DPH and EPD (Georgia Environmental Protection Division) that conducting door to door surveys could not be done.

In response, The Citizen and Connie Biemiller of the newly forming South Fulton/Fayette Community Task Force began taking names and symptoms until Fayette County EMA generated a community exposure form in mid-July.

Short-term exposure and adverse health effects from Propyl mercaptan reportedly came after four shipments of a strong concentration of MOCAP “wash water” arrived at the PSC plant on June 29, 2006.

One shipment was offloaded, then re-loaded and sent back its point of origin at an American Vanguard (AMVAC) facility in Axis, Ala. Three other shipments arriving June 29 were turned back without being offloaded.

Samples of a rail tank car said to contain the pesticide wash water were subsequently taken and analyzed by state and federal authorities. The sampling showed very high concentrations of ethoprop and propyl mercaptan. Those samples were later made public.

The Health Consultation later concluded that the source of community adverse effects was due to propyl mercaptan but not to ethoprop, because it does not readily evaporate and breaks down rapidly in the environment. The Health Consultation recommended that no further actions on the topic were indicated at this time.

For their part, attorneys for AMVAC wanted to make sure the corporate perspective was taken into account prior to the public release of information relating to the MOCAP wash water samples taken at the AMVAC facility in Axis, Alabama.

In a Sept. 15, 2006, email from EPD Assistant Director Jim Ussery and copied to EPA and DHR supervisors, an AMVAC attorney unnamed by Ussery stated the company’s position on the how the test results would be interpreted and explained to the public.

“There is no basis to expect that there was any completed exposure pathway as to ethoprop and any nearby residents, regardless of the concentrations in the sampling results,” said a portion of the email. “We hope EPD and DHR are unequivocal on that point. If there is any disagreement on that point or any inclination of the agencies to communicate the results without making that point clear, I would request the opportunity to discuss it further in detail prior to the public release of any results.”

The genesis of the lack of a specific determination for the Fayette/Fulton illnesses extends far beyond the geographic boundaries of those counties.

There is often found in the medical literature a lack of information of the long-term effects of exposure to either propyl mercaptan or ethoprop, even though these chemicals have been widely used.

But this lack of long-term empirical data is not uncommon with the approximately 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States today.

Nationwide, the burden of proof for establishing adverse health effects from chemicals rests largely with the public, or government, rather than with industry’s requirement to prove theme safe, according to the 1947 federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

That the U.S. chemical industry assisted in crafting FIFRA and its subsequent amendments in the 1970s has long been established.

While acknowledging short-term adverse effects, ATSDR, DPH and others have maintained since the incidents unfolded that long-term health effects (long-term physiological damage to organs) for propyl mercaptan were not expected since the exposure, based on air samples taken, was less than the recommended .5 parts per million (ppm).

A number of central and north Fayette and south Fulton residents experienced what they said were significant, even life-threatening, effects from exposure to the chemical onion odor that permeated their communities. Among those were John Abernathy, Darrell Guice, Clare and Earl Hindman and George and Kim Nicholson.

Like many others, all said they were never contacted by anyone doing a follow-up to their reported symptoms and illnesses or asked for copies of their medical records or requested to speak with their doctors.

“During all of this we reported to all the authorities our symptoms but no one ever contacted us except PSC,” George Nicholson said. “PSC called to tell my wife that the smell was not harmful and could not be causing her symptoms. That was the only call we ever received. So how many more never got interviewed? The (Health Consultation) has holes in it in many places. This was government believing and protecting big business over the citizens of the area. There was a lot of talk but never any real help or support.”

Earl Hindman was the only person identified by name in the Open Records information received by The Citizen and one of only three residents specifically referenced.

His was in the form of a Dec. 29, 2006 letter he had written to EPD Director Carol Couch where Hindman referenced a physician who had apparently made a connection between some of the symptoms being manifested in humans and exposure to organophosphates. The letter was copied to Georgia Dept. of Community Affairs and Dr. John Horan. Hindman never received a reply. He also spoke with DPH Chemical Hazards Program Director Jane Perry about numerous concerns.

“I have never received any request to have anyone look at our medical records or speak with our doctors,” said Hindman, whose wife Clare became demonstrably ill after the chemical onion odor first filled their neighborhood near the PSC plant. She was recently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and had began manifesting symptoms in May during the time the onion odor began, a time at least a month prior to when PSC and EPD said the MOCAP wash water entered the plant.

Hindman’s Peachtree City doctor would not listen when the couple expressed concerns that the onion odor might be linked to their symptoms, saying he did not have time to read the newspaper or to watch television, Hindman said in frustration last year.

Today, Hindman said he had found hundreds of medical research papers indicating possible or apparent links between organophosphate pesticides and neurological conditions such as ALS.

Also provided in the Open Records information was a large document on propyl mercaptan from the Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB). Listed in the section called Human Toxicity Excerpts, signs and symptoms included muscular weakness, convulsions, respiratory paralysis, headache, nausea, irritation of the skin, eyes and mucous membranes of the respiratory tract.

“Acute respiratory effects were associated with propyl mercaptan exposure from potato fields treated with the pesticide ethoprop,” the report said.

In reference to employment where exposure to mercaptans may occur, the HSBD also states that prior to placing a worker in the job a physician should perform medical, environmental and occupational histories.

The doctor should conduct a physical examination, physiologic and laboratory tests appropriate for the occupation risk, concentrating on the function and integrity of the nervous and respiratory systems.

During the exposure period last year, some of the residents visiting their physicians were diagnosed with headache, nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, eye irritation, pneumonia, pleurisy, muscle cramps and weakness, kidney failure and first time diagnoses of asthma. Those with some of the more serious cases interviewed by The Citizen said they have never been contacted by state or federal researchers conducting the Health Consultation.

Residents and staff with the various agencies were often intrigued by how quickly the heavy presence of the chemical onion odor could come and go, sometimes with or without a strong breeze.

Apparently, one of those was Richard Nickle, with the ATSDR Emergency Response team, whose forthright email comment to colleagues was noted after attending a public meeting July 19, the first of several South Fulton/Fayette Community Task Force public meetings. The meeting was held at Bethany United Methodist Church, a short distance from the PSC plant on Hwy. 92.

“As I left the meeting around 10 p.m., I drove by the plant. The odor of onions was intense in low-lying areas along the road and caused my eyes to tear in the brief time it took me to drive through it and reach higher ground,” Nickle said. “When I had arrived there at 5:30, there was no odor along that road at all. I don’t know where this is going, but I am confident it is not going away.”

Hundreds of residents of Fayette and Fulton counties know exactly what he means.

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bad_ptc's picture
Submitted by bad_ptc on Tue, 07/03/2007 - 9:15pm.

Thanks for the follow-up on this Ben! Please stick with it.

Just how is the affected public supposed to proceed?

There needs to be a televised, public hanging over the non-handling of this issue.

Who do we contact?

Which public official(s) do we start with?

What support do the citizens get from their elected officials?

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