The federal agency that investigates health risks at Superfund sites is in Anaconda this coming weekend offering free arsenic and lead testing to the first 200 people to sign up.
Results from this study could influence the final cleanup deal currently being negotiated for the Anaconda Smelter Superfund site.
I sat down with David Dorian, an environmental health scientist with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to learn more about why they’re coming to the Smelter City.
Dorian said in Anaconda, “There have been historic studies that indicate that there were significant exposures to arsenic and also that those exposures have been declining over years.”
But when ATSDR held listening sessions there back in May, “What we heard from the community was really concern about what’s happening right now,” Dorian said.
Right now many properties in Anaconda are being tested and cleaned up for lead and arsenic.
That’s because the copper smelter there belched toxic smoke out over the valley for about a century, and in the process contaminated the air, soil and water in the area with heavy metals.
But while the Superfund cleanup has been ongoing since 1983, many locals are still worried about the risks of coming into contact with dirty soil in their yards or toxic dust in their attic.
“And that’s what the EI, this exposure investigation, speaks to. Is what’s occurring right now, and how does the community move forward?”
So for four days, from Friday through Monday, ATSDR is partnering with the state and county health departments to collect blood and urine samples from locals, and have them fill out a questionnaire.
The blood is sampled for lead, and the urine for arsenic. ATSDR then crunches the numbers and compares the values to national statistics.
Dorian says this study will offer two big insights. First, participants will find out if their own lead and arsenic levels are elevated, and how they were likely exposed.
“The second is this fundamental question that the community wants us to answer about whether or not exposures in their community, to lead and arsenic, are higher than their counterparts in the rest of the country.”
Dorian said that while these sampling methods are considered to be very accurate for calculating the body burden of lead and arsenic, they do have some limitations. For one thing:
“An ATSDR exposure investigation is a snapshot in time.”
Lead’s half-life is typically 60 days, meaning it’s only detectable in your blood if you’ve been exposed in recent months. And arsenic sticks around for only a few days.
But the impacts can be serious and long-lasting. According to ATSDR’s press release, lead exposure is dangerous to pregnant women and developing fetuses, and can cause learning and behavior problems in children. Long-term exposure to arsenic can lead to circulatory and nervous system problems, and increase the risk of skin, bladder, lung and liver cancers.
ATSDR’s investigation also comes on the heels of a new study from researchers at the University of South Carolina showing that Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge counties have higher death rates of certain diseases than other counties in Montana.
Dorian is aware that people in Anaconda are concerned about past or cumulative exposures to these contaminants, but said there’s no easy way to determine them.
“We’re not able to assess those in the same way that we’re able to assess current exposures,” he said. “However, there’s still great information that can be determined from examining what current exposures are.”
Dorian acknowledged there’s also an inherent “recruitment bias” in a health study where participation is voluntary. However, he said that’s the agency’s only option because they can’t force people to get tested.
As for the sample size, Dorian said this study is capped at 200 people because of ATSDR’s limited budget. But it should be big enough.
“There is no magic number,” Dorian said. “But if we can reach two hundred, that would be ideal. In our experience, we’ve been able to make meaningful evaluations based upon that number.”
He said so far, there’s been a very positive response, and spots are filling up fast. But, even after vials of blood are drawn, and 200 people have peed in a cup, for experts at ATSDR the work is just beginning.
“When we finish our investigation and we author a report about it, if there are elevations, we’ll be offering a health action plan,” he said. “In that action plan we’ll specify recommendations for how to reduce exposures.”
That’s important because the parties responsible for Anaconda’s Superfund cleanup are in the midst of negotiating a final cleanup deal for the site. But ATSDR is an advisory agency, not a regulatory one like the Environmental Protection Agency.
“So I can’t say exactly how our findings, if at all, would influence the consent decree negotiations,” he said. “But we do find that our recommendations have weight. And we find it gratifying when they’re adopted.”
Dorian says in the meantime, aside from signing up to get tested, the best thing worried locals can do to is participate in the EPA’s metals abatement program that’s part of the Superfund cleanup.
“Ensuring that your soils are tested and then cleaned up if they’re elevated, and ensuring that your attic is tested for contaminated dust, is a primary way to reduce exposure.”
Dorian said when ATSDR is finished analyzing the results of this exposure investigation a few months from now, they’ll hold a public meeting to discuss them.
To learn more about ATSDR’s free arsenic and lead testing in Anaconda, visit https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/news/displaynews.asp?PRid=2660