Chicago River disinfection hearings: science takes a hit


A sad fact about environmental discussions these days is that the people who talk the most about “sound science” are often the least concerned with it.  Science is the fundamental basis of environmental protection, and the engine that drives our environmental laws.  But in the world of public relations, the references to "sound science" are thrown around as a weapon to raise doubt about public health threats.  In the end, science itself suffers.

This sad tale is being played out for all to see now in the hearings regarding Illinois EPA’s proposal to disinfect the Chicago River.  It started out well enough.  Illinois EPA, after years of discussion and delay, proposed that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) should have to remove pathogens – bacteria, viruses, and parasites – from treated sewage before putting it back into the Chicago River.  Not only is this sensibly done virtually everywhere else in the US in modern times to protect public health, but, as pointed out be NRDC’s epidemiology expert Dr. Peter Orris, we have pretty much known since the days of ancient Rome that sewage has germs in it that can make people sick. 

Rather than simply complying, the MWRD protested loudly about – yep, you guessed it – the need for “good science.”  By “good science,” of course, what MWRD means is their science – the epidemiological study that it commissioned from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, being completed this year.   MWRD says it commissioned the study, which involves more than 11,000 recreators who volunteered to participate, in order to determine whether it’s actually safe to canoe and kayak in the Chicago River even though the District is busily dumping undisinfected sewage in it.

Now don’t get me wrong –epidemiology studies are a valuable public health tool.  However, as my shop teacher used to warn, misusing tools leads to people getting hurt.   In this case, as Dr. Orris and other NRDC experts have pointed out, a study that pulls in a random sampling of every kind of recreation, every age group, and every degree of health is really not going to tell you much of anything about health effects on the most vulnerable users of the River – in particular people who have weaker immune systems such as children or pregnant women, or people engaged in activities like kayaking that are more likely to result in direct water contact.  In order to study those people, you have to study them specifically and in large enough numbers – that is, find enough children, or pregnant women, or kayakers to study and get statistically meaningful results.  Even the lead scientist on the UIC study, Dr. Samuel Dorevich, admits this has not been done.

The District has nonetheless doggedly clung to its assertion that the UIC study will vindicate its position in the end.  But any shred of credibility to its feigned concern with “good science” was destroyed when the District recently put out a press release claiming that the UIC study had proven this before the results are even in.  Based only on a set of interim raw technical data presented to them by Dr. Dorevich, the District trumpeted in its May 12, 2010 press release, quoting its Board President Terry O’Brien, “This ground-breaking study confirms what MWRD scientists have theorized: There is, essentially, no greater health risk to individuals who canoe/kayak in the CAWS and have water splashed on them than those recreating in other bodies of water such as the Fox or Des Plaines rivers, or Lake Michigan. The unprecedented scientific data amassed during this extensive study and the conclusions reached by outside scientific scholars support our theories.”

Poor Dr. Dorevich.  Not only was he not quoted in this spectacular act of jumping the gun, but under an Assistant Attorney General’s questioning at public hearings, he stated frankly that no one at the District ever even talked to him before putting out the press release.  And that Terry O’Brien’s statement about the study results was simply, flatly, wrong.  (Interestingly, the press release has since disappeared off the District’s web site.)

In all of our criticism of the epidemiologic study, and the District’s absurd misstatements about it, we have been careful to make clear that Dr. Dorevich himself is a good scientist who is simply trying to do his job.  What is sad in all this is that despite his professionalism and good intentions, even Dr. Dorevich has slipped into scientific error as he is increasingly drawn into the District’s dishonest battle against public health.  At the hearings, when Dr. Dorevich was questioned about the failure of the study to evaluate the health effects of sewage on populations like children and pregnant women who have increased vulnerability to disease, he merely denied that these populations are more vulnerable.  You could almost hear the collective gasp from all of the parents in the room, particularly the women – who, perhaps like me, were remembering their doctors’ stern warnings about the need to get flu shots when pregnant because diseases like that kill pregnant women at a higher rate.  NRDC’s expert promptly put that bit of misinformation to rest, in part by pointing out that MWRD’s own expert included children and pregnant women in his assessment that more than 20 percent of the population has a weaker immune system than the norm.

The latest chapter in this saga of the District’s spiral downhill into junk science came last week, when the federal EPA issued its sharp criticism of the District’s earlier whiffy attempt at science, a risk assessment based on some water samples it took.  EPA made clear that the risk assessment not only falls short of scientific standards, but that the District had failed to even answer the Agency’s questions about it.

It is deeply distressing to see an agency charged with protecting the public behaving in this manner, and so flagrantly abusing the science – and scientists – that it claims to rely on.  But we can also hope that the Pollution Control Board is seeing this sad spectacle for what it is, and will base its decision on real science.  The science that has told us for quite some time now that germs in sewage can make us sick.