ANCHORAGE - An unusual public dispute has broken out among scientists and health officials over a study of cancer-causing PCBs in the blood of Yupik villagers on St. Lawrence Island.
Last week the state Division of Public Health issued a bulletin rebutting the conclusion of an environmental group that low-level PCBs found in residents of the Bering Sea island appeared to come from an abandoned military site.
The state also said the study was flawed and failed to prove that PCB pollution is any worse on St. Lawrence than in other coastal subsistence communities, where PCBs are picked up through the marine food chain.
"There are advocacy groups out there who are trying to move science into a political arena," said Larry Duffy, a biochemist and toxics expert at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who endorsed the state's bulletin. "Their analytical chemistry was perfectly fine, but if you look at their statistics about the source of the contaminants, that case is very weak."
The state was joined by several Native health organizations in stressing that traditional subsistence foods are safe to eat.
"The known benefits of fish and marine mammal consumption far outweigh the controversial potential adverse health effects from contaminants found in those foods," the state said.
The state's missive drew a sharp rebuttal from the environmental group, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and the national PCB expert who participated in the study.
"The state is trying to dismiss the problem. That to me is totally irresponsible," said the group's spokeswoman, Pamela Miller.
Dr. David Carpenter of the State University of New York's School of Public Health, who supervised the St. Lawrence study, said the state is underplaying the potential health risks.
"To ignore the problem of contaminants in traditional foods is in my judgment condescending, paternalistic and poor practice of public health," Carpenter said.
The controversy has not curbed subsistence hunting and fishing, said Savoonga vice mayor Jesse Gologergen, who worked on the ACAT study. Native health groups say that's a good thing.
"It is our strong feeling that traditional foods are very good for people," said Dr. Jim Berner, director of community health services for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which signed on to the state's bulletin. "The omega-3 fatty acids, the iron, the high-quality protein, the anti-oxidants all have such a positive effect."
The environmental group agrees that no change in diet is warranted so far, though it suggests avoiding plants and fish from the contaminated Northeast Cape area.
Not every Native health group is backing the state's debunking effort. Norton Sound Health Corp., responsible for Native health care in the St. Lawrence region, participated in the original study and is staying neutral now.
"There's been some mixing of science and politics, probably on both sides," said Joe Cladouhos, head of the Nome-based group. "The missing piece is we don't know what it means to human health at those levels" of PCB contamination.
Alaska Community Action on Toxics released its study last October, concluding that average PCB levels measured in the blood of 60 St. Lawrence Islanders were significantly higher than levels typically found in people from the Lower 48. The highest readings came from older residents who had been exposed to a former White Alice radar base at Northeast Cape, either from working there or using the area for subsistence camps.
A cleanup of the base is under way by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Division of Public Health report called the cleanup an important priority.
The state responded with a critical look and reached some different conclusions. Because PCBs decompose very slowly, older people tend to collect more in their systems. Sorting the St. Lawrence subjects by age, the state said PCB numbers turned out to be the same as other Alaska subsistence communities - and less than other places in the Arctic. The state said the data did not necessarily indicate the White Alice site as a local source of pollution.