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Emails from DOH confirm PhyloChip study results ‘softened’

On June 6, 2019, The Garden Island reported, “Study clears water for swimmers,” in response to a press release from Department of Health. DOH Director Bruce Anderson said they could “assure the public that recreational waters in Waiopili Stream and nearby beaches do not pose an imminent health threat to swimmers.”

DOH said that the PhyloChip water quality study of the Waiopili Stream done by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had “conclusively determined human waste is not the cause of bacterial contamination in the water.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Friends of Maha‘ulepu worked with Oahu environmentalist Carroll Cox, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all written and email communication between DOH and Berkeley Lab. Those documents revealed that DOH not only had the Berkeley Lab study three months before its release to the public, but made numerous requests to the lab to change and “soften” the study’s conclusions. When originally released, the study reported “clear false negatives” and the lab acknowledged that the study results may not be reliable. The DOH Berkeley Lab email exchange can be viewed on FOM’s Facebook page.

This is not the first time DOH has released a study with conclusions that are not supported and are contradicted by the study data. When DOH released its Waiopili Sanitary Survey Part 1 in March 2016, the EPA was critical and stated: “EPA is also concerned that many of the conclusions drawn from the Sanitary Survey are not appropriately supported or contradict existing data.”

The “EPA also urges Hawaii DOH to continue its investigation of the source of the bacteria. We have reviewed the Sanitary Survey conducted by Hawai‘i DOH and have significant concerns with its conclusions and Hawaii DOH’s reliance on the survey to make decisions about posting signs at coastal recreation waters.”

Based on that concern, the EPA funded the PhylopChip study just released for $100,000. Unfortunately, the version of the study released to the public has been changed. The study data and discussion still report that when fecal bacteria was tested for in samples taken from cesspools, where the source is known to be from humans, the PhyloChip failed to indicate human source. The study’s conclusion initially reported this as clear “evidence of a false negative.” Their initial report cautioned DOH that the failure to confirm human source as the cause of fecal bacteria in the Waiopili Stream could not be ruled out as a “false negative.” DOH had licensed a nearby human bio-solids dump site on 54 acres of Grove Farm land from 2003 to 2014. That site has never been ruled out as the cause for the fecal/enterococcus bacteria in the Waiopili. Even in the changed study, Berkeley Lab never reported that their data “conclusively determined human waste is not the cause of bacterial contamination in the water,” as DOH claimed in their press release. The only conclusive finding of the study was that their data confirmed clear evidence of “false negatives.” In the changed conclusion now posted on the DOH website, wording has been “softened” to say that the data “may represent a false negative.”

The initial reaction of DOH to the study was, “The false negatives for Clostridium and Entero were a bit baffling and disturbing.” DOH then wrote Berdeley Lab: “After further discussion here at DOH, I’m wondering if one of your conclusions could be softened. … wording changes or clarfications … regarding the ‘false negatives’…”

To use this study that had to be changed, to suggest it is safe to swim in the water, is certainly not what the public deserves from the Department of Health. It is a sad day for the safety of our children and other members of the public vulnerable to serious health risks from poop in recreational water. It’s hard to believe that DOH has, once again, released a study unsupported and contradicted by its own data: http://health.hawaii.gov/cwb/clean-water-branch-home-page/water-quality-references/. In the press release DOH said they plan to come to Kauai sometime this summer to answer questions about the study. Read TGI and learn when they’ll be here. You might contact Senator Kouchi’s office, 808-586-6030, and let him know how you feel about the bad science DOH dumps on Kauai.

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Bridget Hammerquist is a Koloa resident and president of the Friends of Maha‘ulepu.

1 Comments
  1. A Friend of MOH June 28, 2019 11:37 am Reply

    Thank you for this thoughtful write up. It seems prudent for the DOH to own their mistake(s) and rescind their claims and conclusions from this study.


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