Despite the threat by some panel members to resign in protest, an advisory committee decided Monday to retain its contract with a team of epidemiologists from UCLA to conduct a health study of workers at Rockwell International's Santa Susana Field Laboratory.
A majority of the 11-member independent committee, which is made up of four community activists and seven medical experts, agreed to continue its contract with the UCLA team to perform the long-awaited study on possible long-term health effects from nuclear materials at the laboratory.
The $500,000 epidemiological survey was called for by local state legislators responding to community concerns about low levels of radioactive and chemical contamination at the Santa Susana lab southeast of Simi Valley. The study is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, which sponsored nuclear research at the facility.
The purpose of the study is to determine if Rockwell workers experienced any unusual patterns of illness from exposure to toxic and radioactive materials at the test complex. Local activists have long pressed for such a study because of concerns about effects on the community at large.
But four members of the advisory panel formed to oversee the worker health study have opposed the selection of the UCLA epidemiological team since September. They said the team's principal investigators, epidemiologists Hal Morgenstern and John Froines, did not have enough experience in radiological-related illnesses to conduct the study.
The UCLA team later agreed to hire a consultant with radiation-illness expertise to assist in this area of the study.
However, this did not satisfy the disgruntled members of the advisory panel. They said they were worried that the consultant would play a limited role in the study and called for the meeting Monday to reconsider the UCLA contract.
At times during the five-hour meeting at the Simi Valley Library, panel members engaged in a bitter debate over Morgenstern and Froines' qualifications to lead the study. Neither of the two researchers attended the meeting, although representatives from the UCLA team were present.
In the end, a majority of the advisory panel agreed to concessions, including expanding the advisory panel to include an expert radiation epidemiologist. This specialist would serve as an arbiter between the committee and the UCLA group whenever questions arose about how the study is proceeding.
One possible candidate for the position is Alice Stewart of England. Stewart is one of the world's leading authorities in radiation epidemiology and in the past has expressed interest in the Rockwell study.
But Dan Hirsch, one of the community members who threatened to resign from the panel, said the concessions would not necessarily satisfy the opposing members.
"If we were today to tell the community whether they could have confidence in the outcome of this study, we could not in good faith tell the community to have that trust," Hirsch said. "If you have a study that doesn't have public confidence, what is the purpose of doing it?"
He said that three of the community members who sit on the panel want to consult with the fourth community member, who could not attend Monday's meeting, before deciding whether to resign.
Epidemiologist David Michaels of City University of New York Medical School, who was chosen to head the selection panel, said he was disappointed by the opposition from the panel's four community members. He said he believes the UCLA team is highly qualified to do the study.
"I have absolutely no reason not to have total confidence in the UCLA team," he said. "They are one of the best groups in the country and they have responded to all of our requests. In fact, they have gone beyond what we've wanted them to do."
Representatives for Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) and Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles), who were instrumental in getting the funding for the study, said the legislators also supported the UCLA team.
They said the two lawmakers were ready to appoint other community members to the panel should any panel members decide to resign.