Local Polycythemia Rate Gets Feds' Attention
Blood cancer linked to benzene, radiation
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry—a division of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—says it will "reach out" to local physicians to share and gather information about what it calls the region's "significantly elevated incidence" of polycythemia vera, a malignant condition where a DNA mutation causes bone marrow to overproduce red blood cells. Still Creek residents also report anecdotally what seem to be unusually high rates of other cancers as well as thyroid disorders—health problems that have been linked to environmental contamination.
Picciano had asked ATSDR to investigate possible toxic contamination of the Still Creek Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to the 8,000 residents of the Tamaqua area. Like the community it's named for, the reservoir is located on Ben Titus Road—which in turn lies about a mile downhill from one of the most toxic pieces of real estate in America.
A 30-acre mountaintop wasteland near the intersection of Interstate 81 and Route 309, the property was mined for anthracite coal beginning in the early 19th century. By the mid-1970s, the Reading Co. had closed the mine, and a company called McAdoo Associates took over the site, providing waste-disposal services for some of America's biggest corporations, according to court documents. They included Air Products,BASF, GTE (now Verizon), Hoffman-LaRoche, ITT, Johnson & Johnson, Morton-Thiokol (today Morton and Alliant Techsystems) and a division of Standard Oil that's now part of BP.
(In this Google Earth image, the McAdoo Associates site is in the black spot above and to the left of the reservoir.)
The corporations paid McAdoo Associates to take their hazardous garbage, which included metal sludge, oily wastes, solvents, acids, pickling liquors, caustics, pesticides, cyanide, phenols, halogens, metals and lead-contaminated firebrick, as well as lab, production and pharmaceutical waste, according to a 1981 Environmental Protection Agency site inspection report. When it first opened in 1975, McAdoo Associates operated two rotary kiln furnaces and a liquid-waste incinerator for disposing of the chemicals, but the state shut down the incineration operation in 1977 after the company failed to comply with pollution requirements. So instead, the company simply stored the waste on-site in piles, drums and 10,000-gallon tanks, until the Pa. Department of Environmental Regulation (now Protection) closed it down for good in 1979.
EPA inspectors reported what was clearly a shoddy operation:
"Visible evidence of bulging and leaking drums, large areas of major spills or dumping, migration of spills off-site, large quantities of incompatible wastes, dead animals and birds around some drums, and reportedly two ... incidents Involving generator hired clean-up contractors."
They also describe
"[v]ery extensive leakage and spillage of Incompatible materials. Some of the Benzene containing resin like sheets are 50' X 30'."
The EPA later identified other known carcinogens on the property, including arsenic, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are made up of benzene rings. The agency eventually designated McAdoo Associates as Pennsylvania's top-priority site for Superfund cleanup.
The EPA oversaw the removal of more than 6,000 barrels of toxic chemicals dumped on the ground or into the mines. It also cleaned up the surface soil. But the agency did not take action to remove any contamination that may have seeped from the barrels into the groundwater, or that may have been dumped directly into the ground. Still Creek resident Joe Krushinsky Sr. reported seeing tanker trucks pull up to an old wash shanty on the property and empty their loads into a well that previously supplied water for the mineworkers.
"That mountain is so contaminated that it frightens me to come outside every day and look at it," Krushinsky told me recently. A well owner, he suspects contamination from the dump may have been a factor in his ongoing 12-year fight against prostate cancer—though he does smoke, a habit that's been linked to prostate cancer. However, the sheer number of his neighbors who are sick, not all of them smokers, lead him to suspect environmental factors.
"I could name 10 people right around my house who've died from cancer," Krushinsky said. "The further up the road you go, the worse it gets."
Unfortunately, ATSDR has no plans to do a broader study of how McAdoo Associates is affecting the community's health. The agency treated Picciano's letter as a petition for a new public health assessment, and subsequently rejected it.
"The U.S. Environmental Protection agency's review of the information for the McAdoo site shows no evidence that any contamination from the site is affecting the water quality in the reservoir," wrote William Cibulas Jr. of the ATSDR's Division of Health Assessment and Consultation.
EPA has long maintained that contamination from McAdoo Associates does not affect residential wells along nearby Ben Titus Road or the Still Creek Reservoir, even while acknowledging that the wells are hydrologically downgradient of the site. "[T]he Little Schuylkill River and its proximity to the residential wells induces groundwater flow towards the river," according to the 1993 public health assessment for McAdoo Associates conducted by PADOH for ATSDR. "Geological study has determined that in order for groundwater from the ... location to reach the residential wells located along Still Creek Road, it would have to flow across several intercepting zones, including bedding planes and four large fault zones, which is unlikely."
Some locals—Krushinsky among them—are skeptical of EPA's claims, however. They insist the flow of groundwater in a mountain riddled with mine shafts is likely to be less than completely predictable. "I don't care what anyone says," Krushinsky said. "Water follows the path of least resistance." And in fact, a composite map of the area compiled from old hydrogeological maps shows streams draining the mountaintop area just east of what's now McAdoo Associates into Still Creek, since dammed to create the reservoir:
(Stephen F. Payer compiled this map from three 19th century geological source maps. I've circled in black what appear to be the streams draining from the McAdoo Associates' area to Still Creek.)
But even if we accept the EPA's claim that McAdoo Associates doesn't affect downgradient wells and the reservoir, that doesn't mean pollution from the operation didn't affect area residents' health. What about the air pollution from the furnaces and incinerator? Those of us who lived in the area when the facility was operating recall a terrible odor from the place. What was emitted? What did we breathe? Did the pollution rain down into our drinking water?
PADOH/ATSDR's 1993 assessment didn't consider these questions. While the agencies acknowledged that McAdoo Associates operated furnaces and an incinerator, they didn't consider the effects of associated air emissions. The only air pollution their report considers are vapors from soil contamination at the cleaned-up site, which it says did not exceed off-site background levels.
PADOH/ATSDR also dismiss the possibility of exposure to contaminants via river sediment because the waterway is, they say, so "aesthetically unappealing." Perhaps the agencies are unaware that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks the Little Schuylkill just south of Tamaqua, and has been doing so for years.
It should be noted that PADOH/ATSDR's 1993 assessment did find toxic contamination in the Still Creek wells: specifically, lead above the EPA's Maximum Contaminant Level, and aluminum, iron and manganese above the Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level. In some homes, lead was higher at the tap than the well, indicating that the home water distribution system was at least partly to blame for the contamination.
In addition, expert analysis conducted earlier this year on 2004 testing data found that the lead level in untreated reservoir water was 76 parts per billion—more than five times allowable levels. Lead is a recognized carcinogen and a reproductive and developmental toxicant, and it's also suspected of being toxic to the cardiovascular/blood, gastrointestinal/liver, immune, kidney, and neurological systems. ATSDR reviewed that testing data in response to Picciano's concerns, but it concluded that reservoir contamination is not a problem since subsequent testing for lead, zinc and arsenic by the Tamaqua Area Water Authority didn't find dangerous levels of these toxins.
PADOH and ATSDR also point out that these contaminants are commonly elevated in mining communities. However, it should be noted that mining isn't the only possible culprit for elevated local levels of heavy metals and other environmental toxins.
Northeastern Power Co. has operated a cogeneration facility adjacent to the McAdoo Associates Superfund site since 1989. Owned by Texas-based SUEZ Energy North America, the facility burns more than 500,000 pounds of waste coal each year, producing electricity for Pennsylvania Power & Light as well as steam for an adjacent greenhouse. In doing so, NEPCO generates 300,000 tons of coal-combustion waste, which it dumps next to the Superfund site into an enormous unlined mine pit known locally as the "Big Gorilla." The dumping of such waste has been linked to groundwater pollution.
(One of my photos of the NEPCO waste-coal-burning facility, taken through the fence around the McAdoo Associates Superfund site.)
NEPCO also releases a large amount of toxic pollution into the air. In 2004 alone, the most recent year for which data is available, the facility reported emitting 82,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid; 16,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride; 755 pounds of barium compounds; 255 pounds of chromium compounds; 100 pounds of lead compounds; 100 pounds of manganese; and one pound of mercury. From 1998 (when waste-coal-fired plants first began publicly reporting Toxics Release Inventory data) to 2004 (the most recent year for which data is available), NEPCO reported releasing a total of 277,260 pounds of these toxic chemicals to the air. Burning coal also releases radiation, though the government does not require plants to report such emissions. Still Creek residents report that some sort of substance occasionally falls from the cogen like snow, and corrodes their plastic lawn furniture.
Schuylkill County is home to a number of waste-coal-burning power plants that are located in a southwest-to-northeast line along Interstate 81, which passes just north of Still Creek. They include Gilberton Power, St. Nicholas Cogeneration, Wheelabrator Energy and WPS Westwood Generation. Like NEPCO, all these facilities emit large quantities of toxic chemicals as well as low-level radiation, which prevailing winds carry northeast toward the Still Creek-Hometown area. Many of the facilities are also depositing coal combustion waste in nearby mine pits; at least one study has found found significantly elevated radiation levels in a coal ash landfill.
And NEPCO is not the only industrial facility affecting Still Creek. About two miles southwest of the community, Air Products' specialty gas plant is also a big polluter. In 2004 alone, the facility reported emitting to the air 5,328 pounds of hydrogen fluoride; 3,298 pounds of dichloromethane; 3,059 pounds of chloroethane; 1,000 pounds of ammonia; 500 pounds of hydrochloric acid; 255 pounds of acetonitrile, also known as methyl cyanide; and five pounds of boron trichloride. From 1988 (when the TRI reporting began) to 2004, Air Products reported released a total of 324,538 pounds of these toxic chemicals to the air. Then there's the Silberline paint-pigment manufacturing facility in nearby Hometown. In 2004 alone, Silberline reported emitting to the air 11,776 pounds of 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene and 55 pounds of aluminum. Since 1988, it has emitted a total of 120,605 pounds of these chemicals.
Given all the possible toxic contamination possibilities in the Still Creek community, one wonders why ATSDR dismissed health concerns after looking at Tamaqua Area Water Authority testing data for just a few substances that aren't even the primary contaminants of concern at McAdoo Associates? Why aren't health officials looking at solvents and benzene and phenols and other water-loving toxins that are particularly likely to have migrated from the site? And what about dioxins, which should be a major concern around any rogue incineration facility?
"We don't have the budget to do our own testing," explained Lora Werner, ATSDR's site representative. "We have to rely on the data we get from other agencies."
Environmental test results aside, the fact is that Hometown-area residents do suffer disproportionately from serious illnesses. Polycythemia vera was not the only cancer to occur locally at elevated rates in PADOH's recent study. It found an elevated rate of total cancers in the 18252 ZIP code, which includes Tamaqua, Hometown and the Schuylkill County portion of Still Creek. Elevated, that is, compared to the rest of Pennsylvania—which is already elevated compared to the United States overall. PADOH also found higher rates of leukemia in the 18252 area.
(The 18252 ZIP code, circled on these PADOH maps, shows a higher-than-average rate of total cancers, polycythemia vera and leukemia.)
Leukemia and polycythemia vera have been linked to several kinds of pollution. Studies have found an increased risk of polycythemia in embalmers and funeral directors, as well as persons exposed to benzene and petroleum refineries, according to a recent clinical review published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Embalmers handle solvents, among the chemicals dumped and burned at McAdoo Associates. Benzene, a contaminant at McAdoo Associates, has been linked to both polycythemia and leukemia. And then there are also Silberline's emissions of 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene.
Polycythemia, like leukemia, has also been linked to radiation exposure. A study titled "Polycythemia Vera Among Participants of a Nuclear Weapons Test" published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in August 1984 found dramatically increased rates of polycythemia among people involved in the U.S. government's "Smoky" nuclear test, part of Operation Plumbbob. The study's authors observed four cases of polycythemia among Smoky participants—a 20-fold increase over the expected 0.2 cases. And in 1982, two Atlanta newspapers discovered 25 cases of polycythemia vera within a 40-mile radius of the Savannah River nuclear weapons fuel plant in South Carolina. (See "Investigations of Reports of Blood Disease," The Associated Press, Aug. 5, 1982.)
Could radiation be a factor in the high polycythemia rate in the Hometown area? Consider the local rate of the two other cancers commonly associated with radiation exposure: thyroid cancer and leukemia. From 1996 to 2002, PADOH's study found 111 cases of thyroid cancer in Schuylkill County, compared to the expected 101.5. There were 180 cases of leukemia, compared to the expected 166.55. And there were 12 cases of polycythemia vera, compared to the expected 5.06. Clearly, the area has an higher-than-average rate of cancers associated with radiation exposure.
It's interesting to note the ZIP code distribution of these radiation-associated cancers in the maps from PADOH's health study. The Tamaqua area's 18252 ZIP code is hardly the only one where the polycythemia rate is elevated. Unlike the pattern seen for overall cancers, the distribution of ZIP codes with elevated rates of leukemia and polycythemia vera generally follows a line that runs from the southwestern edge of Schuylkill County northeast into Luzerne County along Interstate 81. This area is known to have potentially high radon soil levels, though Werner said ATSDR looked at radon locally but didn't find a link. The ZIP codes with elevated blood cancer rates also roughly follow the distribution of the region's waste-coal-burning power plants—as well as the radiation plume released after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979.
(This plume of radiation from the TMI nuclear plant shortly after the 1979 partial meltdown was mapped by the federal Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. It shows the radiation following Interstate 81 toward Schuylkill County. The image is from Three Mile Island Alert.)
Could radiation be behind the high local rate of polycythemia vera? Or could some combination of the area's many toxic threats be the culprit? Perhaps ATSDR's investigation will offer the community some answers. In the meantime, let's hope that the agency approaches our health concerns with an open mind—and perhaps offers us some advice on how to cope with our community's toxic legacy.
Labels: polycythemia vera