The head of the federal agency responsible for warning people about health effects of toxic pollution in their neighborhoods responded to complaints Thursday at a hearing in Washington by saying he's improving the agency's approach to investigating hazards and how the risks are explained.
Under criticism from Congress and the public, the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says he is taking advantage of advances in chemical science and technology and reviewing the agency's mission and problems with its performance.
"Some key responsibilities are not carried out adequately while others are needlessly redundant,'' director Howard Frumkin says in remarks prepared for a hearing Thursday in Washington of the House Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight.
Frumkin says the agency has found better ways to explain health risks to people wanting information about their neighborhoods' hazards.
The agency has angered many communities near hazardous chemical sites by issuing health assessments that seem inconclusive or ambiguous about what risks residents face.
Instead of using standard conclusions like, "This site posed no apparent public health concern,'' such reports now will specifically explain how human activities will be affected by potential toxic exposures, he says.
The health agency, which issues between 300 and 400 such assessments a year, also is modernizing its chemical toxicology profiles -- which quickly become outdated -- with ongoing, Web-based updates, Frumkin said.
ATSDR, a branch of the Health and Human Services Department, is charged with assessing health risks at Superfund toxic cleanup locations and other areas of community concern. It also provides technical support in about 1,000 cases a year involving chemical emergencies or releases.
Frumkin was called before the House subcommittee as congressional investigative staff issued a report accusing his agency of seeking simple solutions and avoiding "the most obvious toxic culprits'' that threaten communities.
The report said officials of ATSDR "deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns.'' Scientists both inside and outside the agency are among those who have criticized the agency's approach and findings on many projects.
Although people want clear, definitive answers about health concerns, Frumkin said such answers "sometimes do not exist, due to the inherent uncertainties of science, the limits of available data, the limits of small-area epidemiology, and the lack of appropriate public health tools.''
His agency review includes meetings with community, industry, health and environmental groups, aimed at "revitalizing the public health approach to chemical exposures.'' However, one environmental advocate who attended a session said he has little hope for change because the same criticisms and recommendations have been on the table for years.
"It's hard to believe that they have the institutional interest to do things differently and to be more responsive to the public,'' Stephen Lester, science director of the activist group Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said in a telephone interview.