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Butte-Silver Bow Health Department

The Butte-Silver Bow Health Department is located at 25 W. Front St.

The co-author of a recently published health study looking at metals concentrations in Butte-Silver Bow newborns will discuss her findings at Wednesday’s meeting of the Butte-Silver Bow Board of Health.

Katie Hailer, Ph.D., is an associate professor of chemistry at Montana Technological University and head of the university’s Chemistry Department. Her study, titled “Meconium identifies high levels of metals in newborns from a mining community in the U.S.,” was published in November in the online medical journal Science of the Total Environment. The study’s co-authors are Suzanne McDermott and Jamie Lead of the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

The discussion will occur at about 8 a.m. in the Health Department’s conference room. The department’s “Community Conference Room” entrance on the west side of the building is best for entrance to the meeting.

Hailer’s study looked at the meconium — an infant’s earliest stool — of 15 newborns in Butte, and a comparison group of 17 newborns in Columbia. Findings included greatly higher concentrations of copper, manganese, and zinc in the meconium of the Butte infants.

The magnitude of the differences in concentrations found in Butte compared to Columbia was 1,650 to 1,900 times higher for those metals, according to the study.

Seth Cornell is a Butte physician and member of the Board of Health. He requested Hailer’s presence at Wednesday’s meeting, and Hailer graciously accepted. Other Board of Health members include Butte environmental attorney Ivy Fredrickson, Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Cindi Shaw, Montana Technological University professor and department head Julie Hart, Butte mental health advocate Lyn Ankelman, and Butte chiropractor Mike Welker. Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer has nominated Butte dentist Toby Richards for the board’s seventh position; that nomination will be considered by the county’s Council of Commissioners Wednesday evening.

Amidst the release of several studies on the health of Butte residents and the pending release of other studies, Board of Health members have conveyed that they welcome all additional data related to this important issue.

As we speak, I am currently working with St. James Healthcare representatives to conduct the 2020 Community Health Needs Assessment, a comprehensive look at health in Butte-Silver Bow. That particular study will query by phone 400 residents about their health — that information will provide the assessment’s quantitative data; another 300 “key informants” will also be asked for input, providing the study’s qualitative data.

Pending release is a study mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency and conducted every five years looking at blood lead levels in Butte children, and the effectiveness of the county’s Residential Metals Abatement Program, which abates metals — mostly lead — from Butte homes and yards, most of them located in the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit, a Superfund designation which encompasses much of the Butte Hill. The metals found in homes and yards are airborne remnants from the community’s historic mining activities.

Also pending is another study from McDermott purportedly looking at brain cancer rates in Butte and Anaconda.

At base for many of these studies is whether Butte residents’ health is affected because of where we live — in the midst of the nation’s largest Superfund site and current-day mining operations.

Hats off to the Butte-Silver Bow Board of Health, whose members want to be in the middle of discussions related to our collective health. Board members again have conveyed that the more data collected about our health, the better, but they also desire forums in which tough questions can be asked of researchers.

Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting will provide such a forum. All are welcomed.

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Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.

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