Rocketdyne and Toxic Exposure

Congratulations on The Times’ Valley Edition editorial Oct. 24 (“Neighbors Need Facts”). In contrast to this editorial is the article by Byron Wood, vice president and general manager of the Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power business, (“Good Science is Rocketdyne’s Strength”). I am a neuropsychologist and human factors engineer involved in toxic exposure studies, litigations and research for the past 20 years. I take issue with Wood’s assurances.

What Wood says is simply untrue. The difficulty with toxic exposure is that once the effects occur, they are usually irreversible, especially with respect to neural tissue. The nervous system metabolizes at a far greater rate than other parts of the body and hence takes up toxic substances when they are present, especially into the nervous system. The effects are seen in memory, cognitive functions, hand-eye coordination and, yes, personality change. The nervous system is far more complex than any other systems in the body, and as a result is far more subject to damage and breakage. . . . As a practitioner in the West Hills area, I have become aware of a significant number of patients coming in with cognitive complaints.

Several years ago, a neurologist colleague and myself assisted the Air Force’s bioenvironmental labs at Vandenberg Air Force Base when, at that time, the space shuttle was going to be launched in a polar orbit from the base. Toxic substances could easily be spread over the Santa Barbara and adjacent areas if a malfunction occurred as it did, unfortunately, with the Challenger tragedy in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Many people at Rocketdyne, for example, handled hydrazine, nitrogen tetroxide and other highly toxic products, suffering the effects of this down-line because the company simply didn’t know what the effects of high exposure would be. This led to the concept of threshold limit values.

Wood speaks “corporate.” Are there really longitudinal studies that have been commissioned that will show the effects downrange? I don’t think so, and I don’t particularly like the fact that Wood attempts to allay legitimate fears. In the several hundred people I have examined for status post-toxic exposure, there has been an unfortunate frequency--well above population base rate--of demonstrable cognitive deterioration that can and often is associated with a toxic event. Neurological and internal medicine studies do not address this problem.



West Hills