CDC Defends Ending Funding for Downwinder Study

CDC Defends Ending Funding for Downwinder Study

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has defended its decision to end funding for a study of possible connections between radioactive fallout and thyroid abnormalities among residents downwind of the Nevada Test Site.

Spokeswoman Kathy Harbin says the researchers could finish the project by Aug. 31.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah and himself a native of southwestern Utah, said he was comfortable with the decision to end the 0funding. The CDC is part of Leavitt's department.

Researchers who have been working on the study for years said they are only about one-third finished with interviews and health examinations and cannot possibly complete the project in the remaining time.

At issue is the long-term effect of radioactive fallout from the aboveground tests conducted in Nevada in the 1950s and early 1960s. Past studies have produced conflicting conclusions as to whether the fallout caused increased incidences of particular types of cancer in the residents living downing in parts of Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 provides for compassionate payments to downwinders who contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases.

University of Utah Joseph L. Lyon has been studying the fallout effects since the late 1970s and heads up the current study.

In 1993, a study by Lyon concluded fallout increased the incidence of thyroid tumors 3.4 times over the expected rate among schoolchildren who were exposed to the highest doses. The latest study was an attempt to re-examine the residents. Some scientists suspect health effects may develop slowly for thyroid disease and that there may be lifelong risk.

The government has spent $8 million on the study so far.

"In 1998, we started providing funds to the University of Utah for this five-year project," Harbin told the Deseret Morning News.

In 2003, the study was extended for a year. The following year, it was continued for an additional year, she said.

From the start, CDC has "continually advised" the university about the study's timeframe and expectations about its completion, she said.

"There was a required review by a board of scientific experts right before the funding was awarded in September (2004)," she said. "So in August 2004, Dr. Lyon was advised that this board of scientific experts recommended not funding the project beyond the 2004 funding period."

Lyon said bureaucratic barriers erected by the CDC consumed much of the time for the study, and overhead accounted for a great deal of the cost. Also, the CDC's requirements made for slow going, he said.

"CDC made very sure that we were going to do the most thorough exam and interview possible," with four people to do each exam, he said. "That's not a cheap thing to put in the field."

"We've got three more years of hard work to complete the study," Lyon told The Spectrum of St. George in southwestern Utah. Without the funding, "We have to shut down," he said.

The study was designed to check 4,000 people, many of whom had to be tracked down, and that took time. So far, only 1,300 have been studied.

Kevin Keane, assistant secretary of HHS for public affairs, said Leavitt "obviously cares about this issue (fallout), and it is an issue of concern for him."

Keane said the former Utah governor is "comfortable with how the scientists at CDC have decided to proceed."

"When this grant and study was supported by the CDC, it was for a five-year time period," Keane told the News. "That was the agreed-upon time frame, and CDC has twice extended the time frame for a total of seven years and $8 million.

St. George resident Jeff Bradshaw, who has thyroid problems, is one of the downwinders who is participating in Lyon's study.

"I'd just say it's another one of (the federal government's) schemes," Bradshaw told The Spectrum. "I think they're trying to get away from doing anything for the downwinders because they want to start the testing again."

The funding cut will not affect the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George because it is not funded by the CDC, said Becky Barlow, project director.

The clinic is basically the screening arm for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, Barlow said. The clinic checks for cancerous conditions and offer education about the increased risk of cancer among downwinders.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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