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One year after Texas factory explosion

One year later, the number of people hurt by the West explosion remains a mystery because a government survey of the injured has failed to account for scores of casualties.

Fifteen people, including a dozen first responders, died last April 17 when stores of ammonium nitrate at West Fertilizer Co. detonated during a fire. It's been estimated that more than 300 people were injured.

Government health officials were initially slow to study the extent of the West injuries. When they did, they limited their survey to those treated at hospitals and urgent care clinics. They did not canvass private medical practices, where blast victims were also treated. Nor did they track problems that may have surfaced later, such as brain injuries, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Dallas Morning News, by calling a West clinic and contacting a few medical practices, found at least 40 people not included in the government’s official count.

State and local health officials say their survey was designed to record only acute — or immediately apparent — physical injuries from the blast. “This analysis is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the health effects of the explosion,” Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the state health department, said in a written response to questions from The News.

He later added, “An investigation that looks at every type of outcome or tries to answer every question is too broad and will run on and on, delaying results and recommendations.”

But health and public policy experts say the lack of comprehensive information will hurt the government’s ability to make informed public safety decisions.

“We’re entering a debate over how much regulation is needed to prevent this kind of thing in the future, and to balance that against other interests,” said Dr. Robert Haley, an epidemiologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center and a former public health officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Well, one of the interests that desperately needs to be represented in there is a full accounting of what the health effects are.”

The many regulatory gaps that helped set the stage for the explosion prompted President Barack Obama to order federal agencies to improve chemical safety regulations.

Texas legislators are weighing changes to laws and insurance requirements. But industry resistance has been fierce, and state lawmakers have said they’ll have to balance any new regulations against their burden on business.

“It’s the government’s role to ensure public safety,” said Angela Evans, former deputy director of the Congressional Research Service, which provides Congress with data and analysis for policy decisions.

“Well, how do you do that? You learn as much as you can about the risks and the implications of those risks on your citizens,” said Evans, now a University of Texas professor. “Would you not want to have the best data available for everybody who was affected?”

Source: Dallas Morning News "Official toll overlooks many injuries". Staff, April 12, 2014