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ATSDR testing for lead and arsenic levels begins in Anaconda

On Friday morning, Frank Fitzpatrick, a lifelong Anaconda resident, shows where his blood was drawn as part of lead and arsenic testing for an exposure investigation in the area.

On Friday afternoon, a slow but steady stream of people came and went from the Anaconda Community Service Center, where a team of health professionals were standing by on the third floor to collect blood and urine samples that will be tested for lead and arsenic, respectively.

Among those tested was lifelong Anaconda resident Frank Fitzpatrick, 65, who exited the building with a bandage covering the spot on his arm where his blood had just been drawn and who stopped to explain why he’d undergone the testing.

“I think it’s important we get this data for future generations to find out what we can do to protect them coming up,” Fitzpatrick said. “This gives them (researchers) a database so they can get some questions answered.”

According to David Dorian, an environmental health scientist for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal agency leading an exposure investigation into arsenic and lead in Anaconda, the data gathered from Fitzpatrick and the 199 other locals who signed up to be tested between Friday and Monday offers a “great opportunity” to answer Anaconda residents’ one “fundamental question”: “Are exposures to lead and arsenic in our community significantly different than they would be in other parts of the country?”

While the initial arsenic and lead testing was capped at 200, all of those spots had been filled by Friday morning. However, Dorian says ATSDR is committed to return and accommodate anyone else who wants to be tested.

If exposure to arsenic and lead is found to be elevated, Dorian says, ATSDR will be investigate further in order to “provide good information about what exposures are and then give us the opportunity to make recommendations on how to reduce exposures.”  

Finding out about exposures to these heavy metals is important because arsenic exposure can increase the risk of skin, bladder, lung, and liver cancer, while lead exposure can cause circulatory and nervous system problems as well as learning and behavior problems in children, among other adverse effects.

ATSDR is working with the Anaconda-Deer Lodge Public Health Department and Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to conduct the exposure investigation, which began with a listening session in May and which will likely continue for months, according to Dorian.

Once testing is completed on Monday, Dorian says the samples will be sent to the National Center for Environmental Health for analysis. The result will then be provided to individuals in a letter, “as soon as possible” and likely within 12 weeks, according to Dorian. If a person’s arsenic or lead levels are found to be elevated compared to benchmark data found in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, ATSDR, along with the state and county health departments, will “work toward identifying what that source of exposure is for that individual and how to go about reducing it,” Dorian said.

In addition, data collected from the testing will be aggregated and published in a report that will include recommendations on how to continue to reduce exposures in the community. Soon after, ATSDR will hold a meeting in Anaconda to answer questions and provide further information.

But Dorian says the current investigation into lead and arsenic exposure could only be beginning of his agency’s work in the area.

“That is not the end of our engagement with the Anaconda community,” Dorian said. “What we heard in the listening session and in the public meeting that followed in July was a desire for the community to see continued ATSDR engagement and to address many questions that they posed. So this is part of that process, and we’ll continue to work with the community to reduce exposures.”

While the exposure investigation may lead to new initiatives for reducing human exposure to lead and arsenic, Dorian says there is “a great deal that people can do on their own right now to reduce their exposures.” Namely, Anaconda residents can have their yards and attics tested and remediated at no cost as part of the Superfund cleanup process. In addition, the county health department can help people test their residences for lead paint, which is a common source of lead exposure in areas with older housing stock, such as Anaconda.

Jim Davison, secretary of the Arrowhead Foundation, an Environmental Protection Agency-funded group that seeks to make Superfund issues accessible and understandable to the public, says the exposure investigation is a “good thing.”

And while he says there’s “certainly a segment of the community” that’s engaged in the Superfund process and “concerned about how it affects human health,” Davison says it’s important that potentially overlooked groups also participate in testing, such as young children and those who work in construction trades and who might be at higher risk of exposure to metals in soils, attics, and elsewhere.

It’s a concern that Dorian echoes, noting that the voluntary nature of the testing means the group of people who participate has the potential to bias the results of the study.

“With every investigation of this sort, there are limitations, and volunteer or recruitment bias is a valid concern,” Dorian said. “It is always challenging to reach the most vulnerable populations. However, the community seems to be very engaged in making an effort for people to get out (and get tested).”

As for Fitzpatrick, he’s optimistic that the exposure investigation will produce sound results for a community that hasn’t yet had “an extensive study like this.”

“I have faith in their testing,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s where you start.”

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