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Preventing Exposure to Metals in Arizona Mining Country

Categories: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Sharing Our Stories, Toxic Substances, Voices from the Field

Humboldt Smelter

The Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Site in Dewey-Humboldt, AZ Credit: Leah Butler (EPA) via Wikimedia Commons

You may find ATSDR regional representatives just about anywhere in the United States—in Alaska or Puerto Rico, in the mountains of Montana, or even in the Arizona high desert. That’s where Region 9 representatives Ben Gerhardstein and Jamie Rayman have been working with residents of Dewey-Humboldt, a small town created out of two former mining communities. The nearby Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter once played significant roles in the historical development of the Big Bug Mining District, one of many large mining operations in early Arizona history.

 

EPA Work at Iron King Mine & Humboldt Smelter

In Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona historical mining of gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc ores, and purifying of ores, left behind arsenic and lead in soils in some areas. Arsenic also occurs naturally in the soil and groundwater in the area at levels higher than the national average. EPA is sampling soil in more than 500 residential yards to learn which yards may be affected by the mine or smelter. Testing of both private groundwater wells and the public water supply has revealed arsenic levels above drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)(see box for more information about arsenic in water from private wells). Some people in this area may be exposed to arsenic at levels that can pose health risks over the long-term. Today the mine and smelter are an EPA Superfund site. Superfund is the federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. “The U.S. EPA is working to investigate the nature and extent of the problem and develop cleanup options that will protect public health and the environment,” said Jeff Dhont, EPA’s Remedial Project Manager at this site.

Humboldt Mine

ATSDR and ADHS staff members were available to answer community members’ health questions at a December 2013 public meeting. From left to right: Jamie Rayman (ATSDR), Ben Gerhardstein (ATSDR), Hsin-I Lin (ADHS) and Jennifer Botsford (ADHS). Photo Credit: Sarah Wilkinson, University of Arizona Superfund Research Program

ATSDR Works with Partners to Protect Health

As is often the case at hazardous waste sites, ATSDR is one of several organizations working to protect the community’s health. Since 2008, when EPA added the Iron King Mine & Humboldt Smelter site to the National Priorities List, the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), under a cooperative agreement with ATSDR, has been investigating potential health risks and making recommendations to residents and agencies. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) is helping with the EPA Superfund cleanup process and regulating the local public water system. In addition, the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (UA SRP) has several environmental monitoring, remediation, and exposure studies in the area.

About these organizations, Ben Gerhardstein says, “As an ATSDR Regional Representative, I look for opportunities to work together with other groups to help people understand what is happening in their community and what they can do to protect their health.” At this site, he added, “each member of the collaboration had important health information to share. So we developed consistent health messages that included everyone’s work.”

In addition to clear, understandable materials, ATSDR assembled a panel of experts including representatives of each organization. At a December 2013 public meeting sponsored by EPA, panel members shared the information they had gathered in the community and answered residents’ questions about exposure. Over 50 community members attended the half-day meeting.

Raina Maier, Director of the UA SRP noted that “by working together we were able to identify and address many of the community’s questions about exposures to arsenic and lead in air, soil, house dust, and drinking water as well as levels of arsenic and lead in community member’s blood and urine.” Jennifer Botsford, ADHS Program Manager for Environmental Toxicology, added that “collaborating ensured that all the organizations communicated the same tips for reducing exposure to community members.” In addition a local newspaper, the Prescott Valley Tribune, used this information to communicate exposure reduction tips to readers.

ATSDR Health Education

At the Iron King Mine & Humboldt Smelter Superfund site, ATSDR demonstrated the effectiveness of two key components in its approach to community health education: working closely with partners and providing actionable health messages. Thanks to ATSDR’s leadership to organize the agency partners, Dewey-Humboldt residents received clear, consistent, and comprehensive information about exposures to arsenic and lead and steps they can take to reduce exposures. Rose Eitemiller, the head of the Community Coalition of Dewey-Humboldt, said “While this meeting helped people understand what they can do to protect their health, residents remain concerned about their health and environment. Our Coalition encourages all the organizations involved at the site to continue collaborating to help address these community concerns.”

References

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/index.html

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/wells/index.html

http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/wells/diseases.html

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