Southwick Research

An Autobiographical Collection of Observations and Investigations

by J. Wanless Southwick, Ph.D.

 

 

 

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Environmental Epidemiology

I had the privilege of doing research into the health effects of pesticides, air pollution and arsenic water pollution. In 1971, the Utah State Division of Environmental Health hired me to take charge of a research contract they had with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was called the Utah Community Pesticide Study. Soon thereafter, EPA asked me to be the project director of the Utah Community Health and Environmental Surveillance Study (a CHESS study). Later we received a grant from EPA to study health effects of naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water in a desert community of west central Utah. Years after I left my employment as the Environmental Epidemiologist for Utah's Health Department, EPA contacted me to do follow up arsenic epidemiology research.

Pesticide Study: Utah was one of 13 states to have a "community pesticide study" funded by the EPA. We selected men with heavy exposure to pesticides and a matching group of unexposed men. We gave them physical examinations, which included laboratory evaluations of various measures of health status, and pesticide body burden measurements. We coded physical examination data onto EPA data sheets and mailed them to EPA for statistical analysis. We were disappointed that EPA could not seem to handle the voluminous data supplied by all the participating state projects. No EPA report was ever made of those data, although some of the states tried to salvage data into some reports. We in Utah prepared some reports on the Utah data. Generally we could find no evidence of significant health effects from occupational exposure to pesticides, although health effects from smoking and alcohol consumption seemed to show up in the data. We also investigated pesticide poisoning incidents. Generally we found that pesticide poisoning incidents were all related to failure to use the pesticides according to the instructions on the pesticide label.

Air Pollution Study: Utah was one of 3 or 4 states to have a contract to study air pollution as part of the EPA CHESS studies. In Utah, we focused on sulfur dioxide pollution from a point source (the Kennecott copper smelter in Magna, Utah). We selected four study communities, which had increasing distances from the smelter: Magna, Kearns, Salt Lake City, and Ogden. The state health department and EPA did not share the same perspective of the risk of sulfur dioxide air pollution. The state had the advantage of years of pollution monitoring and a general understanding of the health histories of their exposed communities. EPA came with an institutional bias that exposure to environmental sulfur dioxide pollution was causing health effects, which could be detected by epidemiological measurements. EPA jealously guarded the data that we collected for them, none-the-less we (the State Health Department) extracted the data electronically before we sent it to EPA. EPA did their statistical evaluations of the data, prepared official reports, and published their findings. We did our own statistical assessments of the health effects data. Generally we found that health measurements did not differ significantly between the communities with differing levels of sulfur dioxide air pollution levels. A slight effect could be detected from occupational exposure to sulfur dioxide, however these occupational effects were significantly less that the effects detected from cigarette smoking. None-the-less, public perception of air pollution discomfort was voiced at times when inversions made the air appear polluted. I learned that these subjective opinions have significant influence on public policy, despite contrary indications of objective assessments of health measurement data.

Arsenic in Drinking Water Study: When the rural desert community of Hinckley, Millard County, Utah drilled its community drinking water well in 1976, the first water sample that they submitted to the Utah State Bureau of Environmental Health showed high levels of Arsenic. Additional samples confirmed the presence of arsenic in the water at nearly 200 parts per billion, almost 4 times the amount allowed by the drinking water standard at that time (50 parts per billion). It was known that private drinking water wells in the area contained similar levels of arsenic, but no health consequences had been reported. We applied for and received an EPA grant to study the health of people who lived in that arsenic exposed area. We gathered more drinking water samples from the area, collected hair and urine samples, and gave physical examinations to residents. Physical exams included dermatological exams and nerve conduction velocity tests. Arsenic levels in hair and urine correlated well with arsenic exposure levels. Neither the dermatological exams nor the nerve conduction velocity tests showed correlations with arsenic exposure from drinking water. If there was an arsenic health effect, it was not obvious. Critics of the study said we did not have enough people in the study to detect the effects. We started another approach to the study, by gathering historical records of persons who had lived in the community, with the idea of comparing death certificates of exposed and control persons. Exposed persons were selected from highly exposed communities (Hinckley, Deseret and Oasis) while the control persons were drawn from a larger, near by town (Delta), which had well-water arsenic below the arsenic standard. This portion of the study was not finished, due to a lack of funding.

Years later, EPA had renewed need for more arsenic in drinking water health effects data. I no longer worked for the Utah Health Department, but they contacted me in Idaho to request a follow up arsenic study in the same area of Millard County, Utah. I had microfiche copies of the historical records extracted in the first study and converted those records into an electronic database. Then EPA decided to expand the number of people in the cohort by extracting more historical records. My team of assistants worked in ........

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