Return to Obituaries

In Memory of
Vernon N. Houk
December 16, 1929 - September 11, 1994

Vernon N Houk, MD (1929 - 1994)
Vernon N Houk was born on December 16, 1929. He died on September 11, 1994 at 64 years old.

Obituary From the New York Times

Vernon N. Houk MD

Dr. Vernon N. Houk, one of the Government's top environmental health specialists, who raised a scientific and political furor by declaring three years ago that it had been a mistake to evacuate Times Beach., Mo., in 1982 after fears were raised about the chemical dioxin, died on Sunday in Atlanta. He was 64 and lived in Atlanta.

The cause was tracheal cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where Dr. Houk had worked since 1968.

An internationally known authority on the effects of toxic substances on human health, who rose to become Assistant Surgeon General, Dr. Houk was regarded by both critics and supporters alike as a fiercely independent researcher and public health administrator.

In the 1970's, researchers in the centers division of Environmental Health Services, which Dr. Houk directed at the time, were among the first to discover that lead in paint and gasoline posed a significant threat to the health of children. Dr. Houk was a pivotal figure in compelling the Government to begin removing lead from gasoline in 1982. Attacks From Industry

In 1983 he was appointed director of the National Center for Environmental Health, a division of the centers, and almost immediately came under attack by the military and the nuclear industry. The reason was his support for a study done by one of his researchers, which found that World War II veterans who had participated in an atomic weapons test in Nevada in the 1950's developed higher-than-expected levels of cancer. It was the first time a Government health agency had publicly confirmed that radiation from the American nuclear weapons industry had caused cancer among some participants.

In the last years of his career at the centers, the very groups that had long supported his work, environmentalists and public health advocates, became his severest critics. The issue generating the animosity was the potential effect on human health from dioxin, a toxic chemical byproduct of heating compounds containing chlorine, and from other manufacturing processes.

Dr. Houk became deeply involved in the debate when he was appointed to lead a study on Vietnam veterans who asserted that their exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant containing dioxin, had produced unusual numbers of cancers as well as higher-than-normal levels of birth defects in their children.

As the study was getting under way, in the late fall of 1982, a flood hit Times Beach, a Meramec River community southwest of St. Louis, where the Government was already studying dioxin contamination that had been found in the town's soil. Spurred by the Reagan Administration, and basing his decision on the result of laboratory tests that indicated dioxin caused cancer in rodents, Dr. Houk and other physicians from the centers recommended that the towns 2,240 residents be evacuated.

Both the veterans study and the evacuation of Times Beach would come to dominate the last years of his career. In 1987, the Agent Orange study was halted. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Houk said the veterans study could not be conducted because records were incomplete and researchers were unable to determine how many veterans had been exposed and the levels of the chemical that they had come into contact with. Veterans groups and environmentalists accused him of being narrow-minded.

In 1991, he came under further criticism from environmentalists, as well as from some prominent scientists, when he declared in a speech in St. Louis that the evacuation of Times Beach had been a mistake.

He said in an interview with The Times the same year that he had begun to doubt dioxins hazards, particularly at the tiny levels that the vast majority of people are regularly exposed. Beginning in about 1986, the information was beginning to accumulate that dioxin's effect on human health was probably not as bad as we had feared in the early 1980's, he said. Congressional Inquiry

In 1990, Dr. Houk was investigated by Representative Ted Weiss, Democrat of Manhattan, for allegations that he had improperly aided the paper industry's campaign to loosen restrictions on dioxin in water. Republicans and some Democrats defended Dr. Houk, calling Mr. Weiss's investigation a politically motivated scientific witch hunt.

Dr. Houk's death came two days before the public release of a 2,000-page report on dioxin by the Environmental Protection Agency, which some scientists say confirms some of his views on dioxin. [ Article, page A14. ]

Vernon Houk was born in Dos Palos, Calif. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950 and earned his medical degree from George Washington University in 1954. He was a specialist in pulmonary disease and spent the first part of his career as a physician in the Navy.

Among the many honors he received was the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest recognition of the Public Health Service.

Survivors include his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Guy Houk of Firebaugh, Calif.

Photo: Dr. Vernon N. Houk (Michael Geissinger, 1989)