More than a year after scores of Franklin County residents began reporting bizarre and unexplained medical problems, state and federal health officials have concluded there's no evidence to link those ailments to formaldehyde use on Vermont's dairy farms.
The Vermont Department of Health (VDH) and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have both released studies saying there's no causal connection.
However, the activist who first began documenting these medical issues and brought them to light is challenging that conclusion, saying that the public air sampling the studies were based on were flawed. The VDH report, issued today, can be found here. The ATSDR report can be found here. Additional background info from VDH can be found here.
Seven Days first reported on this issue in a Dec. 20, 2011 story, "Is the Use of Formaldehyde on VT Dairy Farms Making People Sick?" In response to those public health concerns, VDH, in cooperation with ATSDR and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, conducted air monitoring in and around several Franklin County dairy farms. Those tests were conducted for one month last spring to coincide with the start of manure-spreading season. The goal was to determine whether the use of formaldehyde, a chemical solution used to control a cattle hoof blight known as hairy foot wart, might be to blame. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and neurotoxin that can cause severe allergic reactions to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract, and can even be fatal.
Over the last year, nearly 100 residents of Enosburg Falls and surrounding communities have reported a range of medical symptoms that some claim get worse on days when local farmers spread formaldehyde-tainted manure on their fields. Those living closest to the fields have reported some of the most acute problems, including shortness of breath, dizziness, panting, facial droop, Crohn's Disease, brain tumors, gall bladder disorders and ALS. Nevertheless, a state epidemiologist says there's no reason to believe the spreading of manure containing formaldehyde is to blame.
According the VDH, two properties in East Berkshire and Fairfax were tested for both outdoor and indoor levels of formaldehyde in the air. Indoor air measurements ranged from 4.2 to 47 parts per billion, consistent with indoor air levels measured in nationwide studies. Outdoor air measurements were mostly below the detection limit. Three detections ranged from 4 to 5.7 parts per billion, consistent with outdoor air levels measured in nationwide studies. Only one detection occurred on a day that manure was spread.
“We have not found formaldehyde at levels that are associated with adverse health conditions in the air samples we obtained, both in the public environment and on the farms themselves," state epidemiologist Bill Irwin tells Seven Days. "So, we believe that if these symptoms are experienced, there are other causes than the formaldehyde from foot baths."
ATSDR conducted one phase of the three-part investigation. Consistent with the VDH, it also concluded that the "concentrations of formaldehyde were not at levels reported to cause adverse health effects." In fact, the ATSDR investigation found that concentrations of formaldehyde in the air did not increase on days when manure was being spread.
But Amy Cochran (pictured above), a former chemist and self-described "formaldehyde queen" who suffers from a range of medical ailments she blames on the formaldehyde, insists that the state and federal studies are flawed. She alleges that state and federal investigators could not have gathered meaningful data, in part because the farmers that were using the chemicals knew when the air sampling was taking place and could modify their activities accordingly. As she puts it, "The solution to the pollution is dilution."
Cochran says she can no longer live on her farm in Enosburg Falls due to the symptoms she experiences whenever she is there — symptoms which, she also claims, disappear as soon as she leaves the area.
Cochran isn't alone in challenging the health department's conclusion. Ian Balcom is an assistant professor of environmental toxicology and chemistry at Lyndon State College. Balcom credits VDH with acting swiftly to address these unexplained maladies and acknowledges that there's no "smoking gun" in their findings. However, he also says that "You can’t disprove this hypothesis that formaldehyde is the source or related to these health issues."
As Balcom explains, there are a number of variables that could explain the inconclusive results, including an unusually early and warm spring that may have volatilized formaldehyde more quickly than normal. Balmcom also notes that the air testing was done between May 1 and June 1, which he believes was too late to gather meaningful samples.
"If I were them, I wouldn't draw any conclusive answers saying, 'OK that’s the end of the story. We're done,'" Balcom adds. "What’s the alternative hypothesis?"
Thus far, Irwin hasn't offered one. Nor does he say what, if anything, the health department plans to do to determine what is making some Franklin County residents sick. For her part, Cochran is now working with the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment to map the locations of those ailments and see whether there's any relationship to residents' distance from farms that are known to use formaldehyde.