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Anaconda Stack 1976

This photograph of the Washoe Smelter Stack was taken in 1976. 

Federal and state health professional faced a dissatisfied audience Wednesday when the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry announced its plans to take a look at Anaconda’s health.

Based on questions posed from Anaconda residents in May, ATSDR will test for lead in blood and arsenic in urine sometime later this year or early next year. Due to how quickly both arsenic and lead can move out of the blood system, this will provide the agency with a "snapshot" but won't necessarily provide data on chronic exposure or past exposure. 

The federal agency, ATSDR, hopes to get as many as 200 Anaconda resident volunteers. Unlike studies taken in the past, residents who are adults and elderly, as well as children, can participate.

There will be two additional tests.

The state is funding a county-led community health assessment in response to concerns raised in May that the federal agency can’t address. Those are addictions, mental health and aging, David Dorian, ATSDR environmental health scientist, said. The county will likely come out with a report late this year or early next year that provides data on those issues, said Katherine Basirico, county health director.

A third study will be a gardening investigation the Environmental Protection Agency will conduct. EPA wants vegetables and fruit from community growers’ gardens to be tested for potential contamination. (See information box.)

But what no health official is going to look at are specific diseases. Multiple sclerosis (MS), in particular, came up in the May listening session as a concern, Dorian said.

But the agencies are not prepared to study it.

Dorian listed off the various limitations to studying specific diseases such as MS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (also known as ALS) and other autoimmune disorders.

The main one is that there is no national information by which to compare Anaconda residents. To create a national database that tracks MS would require an act of Congress, Dorian said.

This brought ire from some of the roughly 40 people who came to the meeting at the Anaconda Junior-Senior High School Wednesday.

Rita McLaren, 63, said she has thyroid issues and lupus, which is another type of autoimmunine disorder.

“We’re not normal,” McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said she won’t participate in the arsenic and lead study ATSDR will conduct because “our damage is already done,” she said.

“Our arsenic and lead will come back normal. It’s already out of our system,” she said.

There is a registry for ALS disease, which affects mostly men. Dorian encourages anyone with ALS disease to participate in that registry.

But to conduct a study to try to discern whether Anaconda residents who already have ALS disease to determine if there is a disproportionately larger number comparative to other towns is “resource intensive” and Anaconda is too small a town to be statistically valid, officials said.

Also, the causes of diseases such as ALS and MS are still unknown, Dorian said.  

Dorian said it would be “disingenuous” to try to suggest that the agency could determine if previous exposure to the former Washoe Smelter’s metal-laden smoke could have caused MS or ALS in the community 38 years later.

Not everyone in the audience walked away frustrated.

Jane Dierenfeldt, 65, said she was satisfied with the meeting. She appreciated that agency officials explained their limitations.

Dierenfeldt, who is a retired RN, said she was disappointed not to see anyone from the medical community at the meeting.

Steve McNeece, Anaconda Community Hospital’s president, has attended previous public meetings, including the listening session in May.

Another issue the state's epidemiologist Laura Williamson addressed was cancer.

That was another cause of concern for Anaconda residents during the May listening session. 

Williamson said Anaconda's rates of cancer, both death and diagnosis, are statistically normal. 

She said about 63 people get diagnosed with cancer in Anaconda-Deer Lodge County every year. That is about statistically average with the rest of the state, she said.

Dorian said that about 70 people came to the listening session in May and 54 talked at length about their health concerns with medical professionals. An additional 21 residents filled out health surveys through the county’s health department.

Some of the concerns included dust from slag piles, dust from attics seeping into homes, contamination in soils, potential contamination coming through local gardening and game harvesting as well as and contamination coming through the municipal water lines and private wells.

Neurodegenerative disease, particularly MS and ALS, the perceived overall poor health of the community is poor and a perceived increased rate of cancer in Anaconda were the general disease concerns, Dorian said.

Residents also said they didn’t understand the cleanup, particularly in their own backyards.

ATSDR can’t address all of the residents’ worries.

Chas Ariss, the county's planning and public works director, said the county has been addressing the water lines and excavating any slag they find buried around municipal water lines. He said the water pressure inside the water pipes would preclude any contamination coming in from the slag that might be housing the pipes.

But the main concern from residents who attended Wednesday's meeting was health problems that they say are already front and center.

Several in the audience, including McLaren, said the county needs to find people who were exposed to the smelter smoke but subsequently moved away. 

"They're dying elsewhere," McLaren said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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