RAVENA–Calling their results a “snapshot” and far from conclusive, three medical researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health presented data last month from their recent study of blood and hair samples from people who live within a 10-mile radius of the Lafarge Cement Plant. Although Ravena is in southern Albany County, the 10-mile radius takes in much of the Town of Stuyvesant in Columbia County and parts of southern Rensselaer County.
The Lafarge plant is one of the largest emitters of airborne mercury in the state, and mercury, while it occurs naturally in the environment, acts as a neurotoxin if concentrations in the body reach high levels. The researchers’ preliminary results found some individuals had elevated levels of mercury, but the source of the mercury and whether it has affected the health of people in the region is not clear.
Questions about mercury emissions from the plant were raised several years ago after data showed that the plant was releasing hundreds of pounds of the substance each year from its smokestack. The issue has become even more prominent as the state has moved ahead with consideration of an application by the company to expand its operations at the site by replacing key parts of the existing plant with a new system designed to increase the capacity and the efficiency of the plant. Lafarge officials say that the new facilities would also reduce pollution from the plant.
A crowd of around 200 turned out January 6 at the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School to hear the first public presentation of the scientific study begun last May by a team headed by Dr. Michael Bank, Dr. John Spengler and epidemiologist Annette Choi. Their team took blood and hair samples from 172 volunteers of all ages.
“No one study provides a definitive answer,” Dr. Bank cautioned early in his presentation. Among the findings of his group are that residents sampled had lower levels of some heavy metals than people living in other parts of the United States. But certain individuals in the sample did have higher in mercury levels than a control group, though the study doesn’t suggest where the Mercury came from.
Mercury exposure can come from consumption of fish, for example. Other sources include tobacco smoke, occupational exposure and the airborne emissions from power plants and other industrial sources in the Midwest carried here by the prevailing winds. People in the Northeast have higher levels of mercury in their blood than those in other parts of the country, but the reasons remain unknown.
In the next six months the team will engage in further analysis of the findings, and in June the researchers plan to formally present their findings for peer review. One reason for the study was to establish baseline data for future research.
The research team tested blood samples for arsenic, mercury, cadmium, aluminum, selenium and lead, and hair samples for mercury. Blood samples indicate exposure during the past two months, while hair samples are indicative exposures over a longer period, approaching 6 months. Twenty individuals, about 12% of those tested, had elevated levels of mercury, lead and aluminum.
“We should follow up and try to find the cause,” said Dr. Bank.
While 9% of adults in the study were discovered to have over 58 parts per billion (ppb) of mercury in their blood samples, all females of childbearing age scored no higher than the national average for their group. All groups scored higher than the national average for total mercury, which is 2.7ppb. A future study that compares local samples to the Northeast region will reveal more, said Dr. Bank.
“We will try to revisit these people for other samples. There’s potential of another source,” he said.
Dr. Bank called the non-randomized study a “snapshot” that will help indicate the direction future studies should take. “In a traditional exposure study — this is the first piece of a larger study — the use of isotopes will enable researchers to track the exact source of metals. Urine studies provide still more clues. The next phase, if it gets funded, will involve randomly selected individuals, and a larger group of 800 to 2,000 subjects.
“This was a small scratch on the surface but a valid one,” concluded Dr. Bank.
Those in the audience expressed appreciation to the team, saying it had helped provide answers that they could not get from local officials. There were also many reports by residents about health problems and cars covered with white dust.
“It was heartening to see the beginning of this study, which is based in real data,” said Susan Falzon, president of local group Friends of Hudson.
“It’s long overdue given the health concerns that have existed in Ravena for a long time,” she said. She also said that the study did not link emissions from the plant with any health issues.
Ms. Falzon pointed to the adoption of new restrictions adopted by the Obama administration on mercury and heavy metals emissions from cement plants, saying that Lafarge had promised to meet those standards. The company’s position on reducing emissions at its new facilities in Ravena “suggests to us it can be done,” said Ms. Falzon.
In a related event, the state Department of Environmental Conservation held a public hearing January 20 on the company’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which addresses the effects of the proposed new facilities at the Ravena site. Some 70 people spoke at that hearing, including plant executives, employees and residents.
The proposal under consideration calls for the plant limit mercury emissions to its current 176 pounds per year and would allow the company to estimate its emissions rather than install costly monitoring equipment. A higher smokestack would enable emissions to be dispersed over a larger area.
That proposal didn’t sit well with at least one Ravena resident, whose children attend the school, directly across the street from the plant. He urged the state to require strict pollution monitoring at the plant.
No one present at the hearing wanted the plant to move somewhere else, but most urged the DEC to monitor emissions to protect the public’s health.
Ward Store, the former DEC wildlife pathologist, who has tested wildlife in the area of the plant, expressed concern for plant employees. He said he did not know of any health study of plant employees. “It should be looked at,” he said.
If the Lafarge modernization plan goes through, the company says it will spend $170 million to build the new facilities, with the work creating 800 constructions jobs. The finished plant is expected to employ 80 people.
The DEC will accept written comments on the Lafarge Draft Environmental Impact Statement until February 22.