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State Now Says Spill Poses Risk of Birth Defects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a dramatic reversal of earlier reassurances, state health officials warned Tuesday that the toxic herbicide that spilled into the upper Sacramento River after a train derailment last month may cause birth defects.

While cautioning that the risk is remote, they advised pregnant women in the Dunsmuir area of Siskiyou County to undergo a routine blood test that can detect abnormalities of the fetal brain and spine during the first trimester.

“I don’t believe anyone got such a high dose of this stuff that it would actually cause a problem,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, chief of the risk assessment branch for the California Environmental Protection Agency. “But people have a right to this information. We’re not offering it to scare people. We’re offering it so they can get the best possible medical treatment.”

The announcement contrasts sharply with statements from state health officials right after the July 14 Southern Pacific derailment, which tainted a 45-mile stretch of the river with 13,000 gallons of metam-sodium, poisoning all aquatic life from the spill to Shasta Lake.

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At that time, residents who sought treatment for headaches, nausea and other symptoms were assured that metam-sodium posed no threat of birth defects or other long-term health problems.

Jackson said the new information is based on toxicologists’ review of confidential files maintained by the state Department of Food and Agriculture’s trade secrets section. The files included “unpublished data” showing that “high doses” of metam-sodium can cause birth defects in rabbits and rats, Jackson said.

Typically, the odds of such defects are about one in 1,000 births. Jackson said he cannot judge the odds for women exposed to metam-sodium vapors because “we simply don’t know how much exposure they had and precisely what the risk is for humans.”

The warning has also raised questions about how the state makes available health information on toxic substances.

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While evidence of harm in animals is not irrefutable proof of such a danger to humans, the defects are “extremely rare for rabbits and rats” and were “a disturbing finding,” Jackson said. Thus, he said, Cal/EPA chose to “err on the side of caution” and release the information.

The recommended alphafetoprotein test is conducted in the 15th week of pregnancy and is already part of the state’s standard prenatal guidelines. It screens for so-called “neural-tube defects,” which include spina bifida.

In the laboratory, the defects developed after animals were exposed to concentrations of 3,000 parts per billion, Jackson said. Air samples taken right after the spill showed concentrations of 130 parts per billion.

Jackson noted, however, that “for people living right on the river, the levels could have been much higher--perhaps in the thousands of parts per billion.”

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The test is recommended for pregnant women in the first trimester who were encouraged to evacuate their homes, and who suffered symptoms from the vapors rising off the contaminated water. Jackson predicted that few women would be “within this window,” noting that about 4,000 people live in the Dunsmuir area, which records about 40 to 60 births per year.

“I’m getting calls from people in Los Angeles who were driving down the highway when the spill occurred and are now worried,” he said. “We’re not talking about people who got a whiff. We’re talking about women who were driven from their homes.”

Janet Norton, a pregnant mother of two, is one of those women. Norton, 32, was “worried right from the start that this stuff would cause trouble for the baby” and on Tuesday made an appointment for the test.

“I didn’t trust what they were saying about (the chemical) being safe,” said Norton, who was then 10 weeks pregnant. “They were telling us it was OK and then they were warning people driving through on the highway to ‘Roll up your windows! Get out!’ I couldn’t believe this chemical wouldn’t do us any harm.”

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Health officials said the abrupt change in their evaluation stems from the absence of certain data in a summary on metam-sodium provided by the Department of Pesticide Regulation, until last month under the control of the Food and Agriculture Department.

The 1990 summary was designed to identify hazards associated with “normal usage” of the chemical in agricultural fields and did not discuss the herbicide’s potential health effects under unusual scenarios like the Dunsmuir spill, said Glenn Brank, a Cal/EPA spokesman.

“The problem here was that dumping 13,000 gallons of this stuff into a river was not a scenario that fit within their definition of normal use,” Brank said.

The information was only unearthed after two toxicologists reviewed files in the department’s trade secrets section--files kept confidential to protect company products.

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On Tuesday, Cal/EPA Secretary James M. Strock took action to remedy future delays in the release of such information in emergencies. Strock directed the Department of Pesticide Regulation to include information on birth defects and other toxicological data in standard summaries kept on file.


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