A new study published by a Brigham Young University professor comes to a familiar conclusion: The operation of the local steel mill is causing respiratory problems in residents, particularly children.

The study by C. Arden Pope, an associate professor of economics, was published in the March/April edition of the Archives of Environmental Health and was peer reviewed before publication. Pope's findings are nearly identical to those of a study by Pope published in 1988. And, again, representatives of Geneva Steel say there are flaws in the study's logic.In the study, Pope looked at the association between hospital admissions for respiratory problems and fine-particulate pollution in Utah, Salt Lake and Cache counties from April 1985 to March 1989. Fine particulate matter, or PM10, is an air pollutant less than 10 microns in diameter, which is capable of damaging lung tissue.

Pope found that hospital admissions at three Intermountain Health Care hospitals in Utah County for preschool children with bronchitis or asthma were approximately twice as high when the steel mill was operating as when it was not. Also, the rate of admissions for those diseases was twice as high in Utah County compared to Cache County.

Pope did not find significant differences in hospital admission rates for pneumonia, contrary to his previous study.

Pope used data from Cache and Salt Lake counties as a control to check whether increases in hospitalization might be from an epidemic of some sort, such as influenza or respiratory syncytial virus, as suggested by other researchers. Cache County does not have problems with PM10 pollution and is demographically similar to Utah County, Pope said.

He was unable to get full hospital admission data in Salt Lake County, however, and does not rely on that county for comparisons in his paper.

Pope said that if peaks in hospital admissions were due to respiratory syncytial virus, which has been pegged by a researcher hired by Geneva Steel as the cause of increases in hospital admissions, similar increases would be observed in neighboring communities. They were not.

Pope also rules out the possibility that hospital admissions dipped when Geneva shut down because the mill's employees didn't have medical insurance, saying the decrease in admissions would have held true for various disease categories, not just respiratory illnesses. No such decrease was observed, Pope said.

Pope's new study includes a fourth year of data - the winter of 1988-89, when the PM10 standard in Utah County was exceeded 22 times. While it is true that pneumonia and bronchitis admissions did not increase as expected, hospital admissions for asthma were "substantially higher," Pope said.

Mitch Haws, manager of public relations at Geneva, said Pope's inability to explain why hospital admissions were lower during 1988-89 when PM10 levels were high "underscores the flaw in logic underlying both of Pope's studies."

And, Geneva says Pope overestimated the populations of Cache and Salt Lake counties but underestimated the population of Utah County, which resulted in higher hospitalization ratios for Utah County. Pope lists population for Utah Valley (which he defined as Lehi to Mapleton in his study) at 188,000 in 1988. According to the 1990 census the population in that area is approximately 213,000.

Actually, Pope also underestimated the population in what he defines as Salt Lake County (he includes part of Davis County) by about 19,000 people based on the 1990 census.

Pope told the Deseret News the difference in hospital admissions is "well beyond what could be explained by a few thousand population changes."


(Additional information)

Battling statistics

The number of children hospitalized for bronchitis or asthma was twice as high when the Geneva steel mill was operating as when it was not - economics professor C. Arden Pope.

Pope's study is flawed because it doesn't explain why hospital admissions were lower during 1988-89 when fine-particulate levels were high - Geneva spokesman Mitch Haws.