Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

Columbus Dispatch
15 March 2003

State wants to limit public information

By Michael Hawthorne

Ohioans could have been kept in the dark about cancer clusters in Marion and Marysville, a meningitis outbreak in Alliance and E. coli infections at several county fairs if fast-moving state legislation already had been law.

At the behest of the Ohio Department of Health, lawmakers tucked a secrecy provision into one of the General Assembly's top priorities: legislation intended to give state officials more power to fight bioterrorism.

The bill, sent to the House this week by state senators on a unanimous vote, would give the state health director authority to block public scrutiny of any investigations into diseases or illnesses, not just those related to anthrax or other biological agents.

"If I was illegally discharging toxic waste into one of Ohio's rivers or streams, I would be delighted with this bill,'' said Christine Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

In an interview yesterday, the Health Department's top attorney said agency officials have for several years wanted to keep their investigations secret. The bioterrorism measure gave them an opportunity to add the exemption to Ohio's Open Records Act, which was enacted to ensure the public can review the actions of taxpayer-funded government agencies.

"When people are ill, many others want to know what is going on in our investigation,'' said Jodi Govern, the Health Department's chief counsel, citing families, trial lawyers and the media. "We don't feel it is appropriate to release that kind of information.''

Although the measure is billed as a way to strengthen Ohio's ability to defend the state against biological attacks, Govern cited investigations of food poisoning to illustrate why the department sought the secrecy provision.

Health officials typically cast a wide net after people become ill from poisoned food, she said. It would be unfair, she said, to identify restaurants suspected of serving poisoned food until investigators have pinned down the culprit.

Govern compared the provision to an existing law that allows law-enforcement officials to keep criminal investigations secret. That law is intended to aid police while protecting the legal presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.

She also said the measure is based on model legislation proposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But a Health Department spokesman later sent an e-mail confirming that the CDC proposal does not include a provision that would make health investigations secret.

Critics say that if the Ohio provision becomes law, it will deprive people of information they could use to protect themselves.

Local and state officials decided to build new high and middle schools in Marion after the public obtained information about an unusually high number of leukemia cases among graduates of River Valley High School. The existing schools were built on top of a former Army depot where cancer-causing chemicals had been dumped for years.

"It's been hard enough as it is for us to find out what happened,'' said Mike Griffith, a member of a community group that pushed to move the schools. "If all that information had been kept secret, it would have been practically impossible to get our schools moved.''

State health officials acknowledged that, after a meningitis outbreak hit Alliance in northeastern Ohio two years ago, they should have provided information to the public more quickly.

Widespread dissemination of information about E. coli infections at county fairs three years ago helped pressure state and local officials to take steps to prevent similar outbreaks.

In other cases, health officials have been reluctant to publicize information.

The Union County Health Department began to quietly investigate a leukemia cluster in Marysville more than five years ago, disclosing few details to anyone other than a handful of community leaders and the families involved.

As in Marion, officials have not been able to link the leukemia cases to a specific cause. But the eight cases confirmed in boys and young men between 1992 and 2001 are more than three times the expected rate for residents 24 and younger, according to a state Health Department report obtained by The Dispatch through the Open Records Act.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said it was unaware of any other state contemplating legislation similar to what's before the General Assembly.

Proponents of Ohio's bill say the changes are necessary to keep sensitive information out of the hands of terrorists, but critics contend that some of the limits are too sweeping.

"Under the guise of homeland security,'' said Teresa Mills of the Buckeye Environment Network, a nonprofit watchdog group, "they are taking away the public's right to know anything.''

 
     
     

 

 

 

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