As worry now swirls around one researcher’s claim two weeks ago that certain cancers are higher here than in other Montana counties, state and local health experts are ready to hear what ordinary folks think about their health at a meeting scheduled this week.
Bill Macgregor, a retired Montana Tech professor, and Raja Nagisetty, a current environmental engineer professor at Tech, received a grant of around $60,000 from the National Institutes of Health to survey Butte residents’ health concerns. Macgregor said the pair hope to get as many regular folks out to the meeting -- 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, 17 W. Quartz St. -- as they can.
Since Butte and Anaconda became sister Superfund sites in 1983, residents have been told by agency professionals innumerable times over the years that the cleanup plan is working and residents’ perceptions of a higher incidence of neurological disorders and cancer are not in line with the actual data.
But after 35 years, there is considerable doubt as to whether that’s really true, Macgregor said. That is the purpose of the grant, the study, and the upcoming meeting.
“When (one agency) disagrees with EPA on technical issues, it’s not clear what the rules of the game are, whether they’re playing by the same rules,” Macgregor said. “We’re all left wondering who we can trust; it leaves mistrust and confusion. We’re hoping we can address some of that.”
Case in point: Suzanne McDermott, an independent epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina-Columbia at the Arnold School of Public Health, has been doing research that began coming out two months ago. Her investigation appears to refute the agencies’ data and claims that “the remedy is working.”
McDermott has long experience in studying metals in South Carolina Superfund sites. McDermott switched her focus to the largest Superfund site in the nation after a story ran in The Montana Standard last year about EPA’s failure to address residents’ risk to exposure to metals in parts of Butte’s vast Superfund site after more than three decades of cleanup.
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McDermott has family in Butte. (Her son is Ted McDermott, a reporter and assistant editor at The Montana Standard.)
McDermott’s most recent research found that brain cancer is 72 percent higher in Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge counties than all other Montana counties from 2000 to 2015. She also found liver cancer to be 62 percent higher and colorectal cancer to be 10 percent higher than other counties during her study period.
This news comes on the heels of her epidemiological study published in late August in “Environmental Geochemistry and Health,” an academic journal. She wrote in that paper that adult deaths from stroke and heart disease were 36 percent higher, deaths caused by kidney and liver failure were 24 percent higher, and cancer deaths were 19 percent higher in BSB and ADLC than all other Montana counties in the same time period.
While this new information appears to be worrying many in Butte -- an agenda item appeared on Wednesday's BSB Council of Commissioners meeting, but due to procedural issues, the discussion was postponed for Nov. 7 -- Macgregor says there are other health factors out there that ordinary citizens are focused on that Superfund professionals are not.
These are health risks that plague the entire nation, problems such as smoking and obesity. Another health risk in Butte and Anaconda is depression and other mental health issues.
Butte and Anaconda have some of the highest suicide rates in the state. This has long worried Butte health professionals. Karen Sullivan, BSB Health Department director, has written about the steps the local Health Department has taken to try to address the high rates of suicide in her weekly column for the Standard. While the agency's efforts have made a dent in the number of suicides in Butte, health professionals say, suicide and mental health problems remain worrisomely high.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Macgregor and Nagisetty hope to hear what regular people say about a question that couldn't be more personal: how do you feel about your own health?