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Anaconda Residents Show Typical Levels Of Lead, Arsenic, Health Investigators Say

ATSDR Medical officer Capt. Arthur Wendel (L) and health assessor David Dorian explain the nuances of the agency's exposure investigation at a public meeting at Anaconda High School. Oct 30, 2019.
Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio
ATSDR Medical officer Capt. Arthur Wendel (L) and health assessor David Dorian explain the nuances of the agency's exposure investigation at a public meeting at Anaconda High School. Oct 30, 2019.

Federal investigators that study public health risks at Superfund sites had good news for Anacondans this week. At a meeting on Wednesday, they reported that the amount of lead and arsenic in residents' bodies are about the same as the rest of the country.

The Superfund cleanup of the massive Anaconda Smelter Site has been underway since 1983. But Smelter City residents still have a lot of questions about how healthy their community is, and whether they’re being exposed to contaminants from the historic smelter pollution.

"What people want to know, they said well 35 years into Superfund how do we compare to the rest of the country?"

David Dorian is a health assessor with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). At a meeting at Anaconda’s High School on Wednesday he told about 25 people that the agency just finished a health study aimed at answering that question.

"I want to cut right to the chase. The overarching conclusion of our investigation after a year of looking at all the statistics and accumulating all the information, is that the lead and arsenic levels in members of the Anaconda community who participated in this study are comparable to the U.S. population as a whole."

ATSDR came to their conclusion by doing an “exposure investigation,” which means, "We’re looking at what’s in your body," Dorian says. "We’re trying to measure that somehow. So, blood samples are used to evaluate lead exposure. Urine samples are used to evaluate arsenic."

Lead and arsenic are both contaminants of concern in Anaconda. Lead can cause developmental and neurological issues in babies and young children. In adults, it can affect the cardiovascular system. Long term exposure to arsenic is known to increase the risk of certain cancers.

The thing is, both lead and arsenic leave the body quickly, a couple days for arsenic and a few weeks for lead. That means this type of study only reveals very recent exposures.

"It tells us about the now. It informs decisions about the future, but it doesn’t tell us about historic exposures," Dorian says.

But, since this same kind of blood lead and urinary arsenic data is collected by the Centers for Disease Control through a comprehensive nationwide survey, ATSDR can compare apples to apples, and see how recent exposures in Anaconda stack up to the national average.

So, in fall 2018, ATSDR partnered with local and state agencies to collect blood and urine samples, and health questionnaires from the Anaconda community. The testing was free, voluntary, and surprisingly popular. 367 residents participated, which Dorian said is the highest turnout they’ve ever gotten for any exposure investigation, anywhere in the country.

"We sold out, in so many words," he says.

There’s no magic number, but he says that sample size is big enough to be a meaningful evaluation, and was representative of local demographics.

After sharing the overall good news that exposure levels in Anaconda are basically normal, David Dorian with ATSDR then broke the study results down further.

As far as lead goes, there’s no safe level. But all the children tested — which are the most vulnerable group — had blood lead values below the CDC’s level of concern, which is 5 ug/dL. For kids and adults in Anaconda combined, the median blood lead level was also below that benchmark, but statistically a little higher than the rest of the country.

"We don’t believe this has any clinical difference," Dorians says. "In other words, we would not think that there would be any difference in health effects between these two groups, because the difference is so small, and health effects are a multiple of factors."

Arsenic is more complicated, because there’s no predetermined threshold like there is for lead, and there are several kinds.

"When we talk about contamination from a smelter, we’re referring to inorganic arsenic"

Only inorganic arsenic — not organic arsenic — is a toxin.

ATSDR found that Anaconda residents, on average, actually had slightly lower inorganic arsenic levels than the rest of the U.S. population. But people who said they entered their attics regularly had slightly higher levels of both lead and arsenic, because some attics are still contaminated with smelter dust.

David Dorian stressed that while overall, ATSDR’s exposure investigation shows that lead and arsenic levels in Anaconda are about the same as the rest of the country.

"Contamination remains in the community. So these results should not be taken to mean that that risk has been eliminated. It just means that presently, at this point in time, it looks as though those exposures are largely being controlled."

Not all locals were convinced. Terry Galle, a retired plumber, emphasized how much pollution remains in many attics in Anaconda.

"Now are we trying to fix that problem, or are we trying to hide it? To me, it looks like we’re trying to hide it," Galle says.

He questioned ATSDR’s methodology and findings, and the fact that their study only looks at current, not past exposures. Galle says when the copper smelter was running -

"Ten tons a day piling out of that smoke stack, every day, for probably 80 years; it had to land somewhere," Galle says. "And so I’m saying, it’s landing on our community. And we’re not doing anything to protect the folks. And that’s why I was hoping to hear from you guys, and hear a good solution to the dilemma, because so far I haven’t heard that."

Anaconda Deer Lodge County chief executive Bill Everett had much more confidence in the study, and said the results of ATSDR’s independent research mean he can now tell people that Anaconda is a safe place to live.

"This is probably the most thorough study from probably the most competent party from probably the most politically neutral party you could ever be involved with, so yeah, it is good information."

ATSDR’s goal is not just to study exposure to contaminants, but to look for ways to decrease it. Public health officials gave locals detailed information on how to protect themselves at home and at work. They also had recommendations for the Environmental Protection Agency and Atlantic Richfield, the company on the hook for the Superfund cleanup. The big ones were to expand the cleanup of contaminated yards and homes, especially attics, and minimize the risk of exposure at the uncovered piles of slag, another form of smelter waste in town.

ATSDR’s recommendations are non-binding, but since the Superfund parties in Anaconda are currently hammering out a final cleanup deal, they come at a crucial time. After the meeting, Charlie Coleman with EPA said the recommendations are consistent with the direction the parties are now heading with cleanup. They’re looking at capping the slag piles.

"There’s a more comprehensive attic dust plan coming," Coleman says. "We can’t provide details at this point in time because that’s part of the negotiation, but the fact that there’s a more comprehensive plan coming, we can say that. We’ve said that before."

ATSDR said these kinds of exposure investigations are expensive, and they only do about four per year across the country. EPA said they will attempt to recover the cost of this health study from Atlantic Richfield, once their lawyers get the bill.

Read ATSDR’s full exposure investigation report.

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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