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.
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
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.
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
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
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.''
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
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.
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.
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
say that if the Ohio provision becomes law, it will deprive people
of information they could use to protect themselves.
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.
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.''
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.
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.
other cases, health officials have been reluctant to publicize information.
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
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.
National Conference of State Legislatures said it was unaware of
any other state contemplating legislation similar to what's before
the General Assembly.
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.
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.''