It was in late August 1984 that residents in the southwest Denver subdivisions of Friendly Hills and Harriman Park called a news conference to demand an explanation from public officials about an unusual number of cancer deaths and health problems among children living in the area. Ten years later, they're still waiting.

A health assessment begun in 1987 by the Colorado Department of Health and completed by the agency two and a half years ago remains unreleased. And two independent researchers charge that the state agency to this day is obstructing an outside study of the incidence of health disorders in the area by withholding critical data.

Consequently, a debate thought to have been put to rest by the 1990 dismissal of a lawsuit against Martin Marietta and the Denver Water Department by Friendly Hills residents who believed their drinking water was contaminated instead continues to boil.

Last February, Dr. Glen Groben, a resident pathologist with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, contacted the state health department to get census tract data on birth defects, cancers and nonaccidental deaths among children in the Denver metro area from 1977 to 1993. Groben wanted to determine whether areas alleged to have received Denver water contaminated with chemical discharges from Martin Marietta's plant in Waterton Canyon showed higher levels of health disorders among children.

"They called me into the health department so they could check me out," Groben recounts. "They quizzed me about what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it and who I was with." He never got the data.

Groben says he believes the problem was who he was working with: Adrienne Anderson, a local environmental activist and longtime critic of the health department who was the first to suggest that health problems among residents of the Friendly Hills area were linked to contamination of the water supply by defense giant Martin. The company's rocket-and-satellite production plant in Waterton Canyon is located directly uphill from the Kassler water plant, Denver's original treatment facility. Toxic discharges into two creeks that feed the water supply at the now-closed Kassler facility have been noted by Denver Water Department personnel since shortly after the Martin facility opened in 1956.

Anderson maintains that CDH tolerated the release of industrial waste by Martin Marietta. "These are supposed to be the guardians of public health," says Anderson, "and they let Martin Marietta use our drinking-water supply as an industrial sewer for thirty years."

In 1991 another researcher associated with Anderson made a data request similar to Groben's. He, too, never received the data he sought. "I suppose CDH was concerned we were going to take the data and use it to beat on some corporate polluter," says Richard Clapp, who teaches environmental epidemiology at Boston University. "But that wasn't part of the research. We didn't know what the result was going to be before we did the research."

An epidemiologist who headed the state cancer registry in Massachussetts for nine years, Clapp is familiar with data request procedures in many states. He says he was surprised to find Colorado officials requesting additional explanation of the "aims and intentions of your research project."

"My impression was I was getting the runaround," says Clapp. A year and several letters later, CDH sent Clapp one page of data. It was useless, he says. "They gave us data on too large a scale," Clapp explains. "We wanted it broken down by census tract. What they sent wasn't broken down beyond the Denver metro area."

Adds Groben, "I think it's absurd that the health department has a right to evaluate my research project to decide whether or not it's valid before they give me the data. That data should be available to any researcher. They're essentially controlling research by withholding public data."

But officials at the health department (now known as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) say data is readily available. "We view this data as public data, and to the extent we can share it with researchers, we'll do it," says state epidemiologist Richard Hoffman. "As long as a researcher is going to bring good science to it, we don't have a problem with the angle of the research."

"Our requirements are the same for everyone," adds Carol Garrett, head of CDH's Health Statistics Section. "Everyone must submit a study protocol telling how he'd use the data." Neither Clapp nor Groben did so, she says, which is why their requests weren't honored.

Yet other researchers who have obtained data from the health department say they never had to submit protocols. John Reif, an epidemiologist with the Environmental Health Department at Colorado State University, says he has made numerous data requests of CDH, the most recent one a county-by-county comparison of cancer incidence earlier this year. Reif says he can't recall ever being asked to submit a protocol.

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Richard Fleming