Study shows elevated rate of bowel disease in Washington town downstream of B.C.’s Trail smelter
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Jamie Paparich’s father and aunt grew up on the family farm on Mitchell Road in Northport, Wash., just downstream of the giant lead-zinc smelter north of the international border in Trail.
Whatever pollutants came out of that smelter, they lived in them, be they in the air or in the Columbia River.
“It’s where the river starts to slow down and creates pools and swimming holes,” she said of the farm’s location. “All these kids swam in it, we irrigated with it, for decades.”
Paparich’s aunt, Rose Kalamarides, now a 56-year-old resident of Alaska, was in her 20s when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Her father (Rose’s older brother), Jim, now living in Nevada, also developed the disease.
And they were by no means isolated cases in Northport, a community of about 300 with a disproportionately high rate of bowel disease.
Four years ago, Paparich got serious about looking into the issue, sending out health questionnaires to current and former residents and trying to generate interest within the medical community in conducting further research.
“I started putting points together; it was a mess,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
Her efforts attracted the attention of medical researchers in Massachusetts, who conducted a health survey starting in early 2011.
Paparich said she never doubted that the results would support her own instincts. “It was obvious, but they confirmed it,” she said.
Spokane’s newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, reported this week that 119 current and former Northport residents took part in the survey, 17 of whom had confirmed cases of either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
That’s about 10 to 15 times what researchers would have expected in a population of that size, the paper reported.
Researchers ruled out a genetic influence in the town’s cluster, since most of the individuals were not related.
The plan now is to expand the health survey to gather information from other communities near Northport and look into whether the smelter’s emissions played a role in the disease rates.
Marcia Smith, senior vice-president of sustainability and external affairs for Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd., which took over the Trail smelter from Cominco a decade ago, said she had not seen the latest survey results.
But she said that past studies in Washington state and B.C. have failed to confirm a link between inflammatory bowel disease and the Trail smelter’s operations.
Smith noted that Teck, in agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is in the process of conducting a study looking into potential human and environmental health issues in the upper Columbia River, including the Northport area, associated with the smelter’s historic operations. The study will also determine what actions are required to mitigate any unacceptable risks.
“Since the mid-1990s we have reduced emissions of metals to air and water by more than 95 per cent,” Smith stressed.
Paparich, who lives in Winnemucca, Nev., and works as a business assistant for Newmont Mining, agreed that “massive improvements” have been made to the smelter, but maintained that bowel disease continues to be diagnosed and demands continued study.
She added she feels that federal and state officials over the years have let Northport residents down by failing to aggressively looking at health issues or tackle the issue of upstream cross-border pollution.
At this stage, she says, no one is interested in financial compensation, only getting more research into the issue.
“These people don’t want anything,” she said. “They just want a chance to let the doctors and scientists study their issues…. They really want to just help people.”
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