If you live in any of the eight Great Lakes states, you may be facing serious health risks.

The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit Washington, D.C. investigative organization, says it has access to explosive government research, hitherto unknown, that more than nine million people who live in the more than two dozen Great Lakes states including such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee may face elevated health risks from being exposed to dioxin, PCBs, pesticides, lead, mercury, or six other hazardous pollutants.

The group cites a 400-plus-page study, Public Health Implications of Hazardous Substances in the Twenty-Six U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern, which was undertaken by a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the request of the International Joint Commission, an independent bilateral organization that advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on the use and quality of boundary waters between the two countries.

The center claims that for more than seven months, the nation's top public health agency blocked the publication of the exhaustive federal study, reportedly because it contains such potentially "alarming information" as evidence of elevated infant mortality and cancer rates.

The study was originally scheduled for release in July 2007 by the IJC and the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Increased mortality

In many of the geographic areas studied, researchers are said to have found low birth weights, elevated rates of infant mortality and premature births, and elevated death rates from breast cancer, colon cancer, and lung cancer.

Since 2004, dozens of experts have reviewed various drafts of the study, including senior scientists at the CDC, Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies, as well as scientists from universities and state governments, according to sources familiar with the history of the project.

"It raises very important questions," Dr. Peter Orris, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago and one of three experts who reviewed the study for ATSDR, told the Center.

While Orris acknowledged that the study does not determine cause and effect -- a point the study itself emphasizes -- its release, he said, is crucial to pointing the way for further research.

"Communities could demand that those questions be answered in a more systematic way," he said. "Not to release it is putting your head under the sand."

In a December 2007 letter to ATSDR in which he called for the release of the study, Orris wrote: "This report, which has taken years in production, was subjected to independent expert review by the IJC's Health Professionals Task Force and other boards, over 20 EPA scientists, state agency scientists from New York and Minnesota, three academics (including myself), and multiple reviews within ATSDR. As such, this is perhaps the most extensively critiqued report, internally and externally, that I have heard of."

Last July, several days before the study was to be released, ATSDR suddenly withdrew it, saying that it needed further review.

In a letter to Christopher De Rosa, then the director of the agency's division of toxicology and environmental medicine, Dr. Howard Frumkin, ATSDR's chief, wrote that the quality of the study was "well below expectations." When the Center contacted Frumkin's office, a spokesman said that he was not available for comment and that the study was "still under review."

'Appearance of censorship'

De Rosa, who oversaw the study and has pressed for its release, referred the Center's requests for an interview to ATSDR's public affairs office, which, over a period of two weeks, has declined to make him available for comment.

In an e-mail obtained by the Center, De Rosa wrote to Frumkin that the delay in publishing the study has had "the appearance of censorship of science and distribution of factual information regarding the health status of vulnerable communities."

Some members of Congress seem to agree.

In a February 6, 2008, letter to CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding, who's also administrator of ATSDR, a trio of powerful congressional Democrats -- including Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology -- complained about the delay in releasing the report.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained a copy of the letter to Gerberding, which notes that the full committee is reviewing "disturbing allegations about interference with the work of government scientists" at ATSDR.

"You and Dr. Frumkin were made aware of the Committee's concerns on this matter last December," the letter adds, "but we have still not heard any explanation for the decision to cancel the release of the report."

Canadian biologist Michael Gilbertson, a former IJC staffer and another of the three peer reviewers, told the Center that the study has been suppressed because it suggests that vulnerable populations have been harmed by industrial pollutants.

"It's not good because it's inconvenient," Gilbertson said. "The whole problem with all this kind of work is wrapped up in that word 'injury.' If you have injury, that implies liability. Liability, of course, implies damages, legal processes, and costs of remedial action. The governments, frankly, in both countries are so heavily aligned with, particularly, the chemical industry, that the word amongst the bureaucracies is that they really do not want any evidence of effect or injury to be allowed out there."