Study tracks reasons behind high rate of illness near Northport
Focus is area downstream from B.C. smelter
Gail Leaden was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, as was her friend on the right in the photograph. Both women used to live in Northport, Wash. Some suspect that emissions from a Trail, B.C., smelter contributed to their health problems.
Becky Kramer The Spokesman-Review
February 6, 2011 – Updated: February 13, 5:24 p.m.
Gail Leaden was 5 when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. In high school, Leaden’s best friend in the small town of Northport, Wash., was diagnosed with the same illness.
She always found the coincidence odd.
“It’s not a common disease to begin with,” said Leaden, 25, who now lives in Spokane. “How ironic that my best friend gets it.”
More than 50 residents or former residents of Northport say they’ve been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, two types of inflammatory bowel disease. Some suspect that their health problems are tied to decades of industrial emissions from a smelter in Trail, B.C. An upcoming study may eventually provide answers.
Two doctors from Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital are looking into reports of high rates of bowel disease in Northport, a town of 330 near the Canadian border. In the general population, about 4 people per thousand are diagnosed with Crohn’s or colitis.
“We should be expecting to see one or two cases for a town the size of Northport,” said Dr. Sharyle Fowler, who will be working on the study.
The disease cluster, if it can be confirmed, could shed light on triggers for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, said Dr. Josh Korzenik, director of Massachusetts General’s Crohn’s and Colitis Center. No one knows what causes the diseases, which affect 1.5 million Americans, but both appear to have genetic and environmental contributors.
“We were drawn to this because it’s an unusual cluster, or potential cluster, in a small population,” Korzenik said. “It offers us both a potential opportunity to help the people of Northport, as well as a much broader group of people, by understanding some of the environmental components that may lead to these diseases.”
Rates of Crohn’s disease and colitis are on the upswing in industrialized countries. People with the disease often have persistent abdominal pain and diarrhea. Surgery is sometimes required.
The doctors’ first step is to determine whether they can confirm anecdotal reports of a disease cluster. They’ll send out health questionnaires to current and past Northport residents. They’ll also ask people’s permission to review medical records.
“If there is an increased risk of these diseases in Northport, this may be the first step of a longer pursuit of trying to understand why,” Korzenik said.
Future studies could look at pollution exposure to see if it correlates to illness rates, he said. Or, the studies might investigate whether Northport has an unusual, but genetically explained cluster, he added.
That type of testing would require research funding. At this point, Korzenik said, the health questionnaire is a “sweat equity” effort by the two doctors, who were intrigued by health histories collected by local volunteers. About 320 current and former Northport residents provided health information. Thirty-six said they had ulcerative colitis; 18 said they had Crohn’s disease.
Smelter stopped dumping slag in ’95
Jamie Paparich suspects a link to the smelter. Her grandparents raised six children on a farm outside of Northport, about 15 miles downwind and downstream of the smelter owned by Teck Resources Ltd. For decades, the century-old smelter released tons of pollution daily into the air and the Columbia River, including mercury and other heavy metals.
The Washington Department of Health put an air monitoring station on the Paparich property. Through the 1990s, it recorded elevated levels of arsenic and cadmium, said Paparich, who lives in Nevada.
Both her dad and her aunt, who grew up on the farm, were diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. They ate vegetables from the family’s garden and swam in the Columbia River. As the disease progressed, both siblings had their colons removed.
Two neighboring families also had children with colitis and Crohn’s disease, said Rose Kalamarides, Paparich’s 54-year-old aunt.
The families “weren’t related by any stretch, yet we all had these same problems,” said Kalamarides, who now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
In the early 1990s, the state Department of Health found significantly higher rates of hospitalization for inflammatory bowel disease in Stevens County and adjacent counties compared with the rest of the state.
A few years later, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry prepared a Northport public health assessment. Results were inconclusive, but the study generally found that pollution didn’t reach concentrations known to cause health problems.
“Our understanding is that these studies have not linked the elevated incidence of inflammatory bowel diseases … with any specific causes,” said Richard Deane, Teck’s manager of energy and public affairs.
Another study done in Trail, B.C., didn’t find higher hospitalization rates for bowel disease compared with the rest of the region. That study was done in 1994 for the B.C. Ministry of Health.
Deane said the smelter has cleaned up its act. In 1995, the smelter stopped dumping slag, a byproduct of the smelting process, into the Columbia River. Slag contains 25 compounds, including heavy metals. The smelter also halted production of phosphate fertilizer, reducing mercury releases into the river.
Heavy metals releases into the air and water have dropped by 95 percent as Teck has invested in upgrading the smelter, Deane said. Through an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Teck also is paying for a multiyear study of pollution in the upper Columbia. The studies will look at current contaminant levels and whether they pose threats to people or wildlife.
“Those studies will cover Northport,” Deane said.
‘Something’s not right’
Northport residents, however, have long lobbied for epidemiology studies, which would take a closer look at disease rates.
Paparich got active in the effort three years ago, after stumbling across the air monitoring results for her grandparents’ farm. She contacted the national Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation last year, which put her in touch with Korzenik and Fowler.
She hopes that Northport can lead researchers closer to detecting the illnesses’ cause. Bowel disease is “an embarrassing, hard, painful illness,” Paparich said. “It really affects people’s quality of life.”
Said Kalamarides, Paparich’s aunt, “I’m curious whether anyone can really establish what happened.”
Though Kalamarides lives in Alaska, she returns to Northport frequently to visit her mother. She admits to feeling some trepidation about the controversy the study could unleash in Northport, which has close ties to Trail.
“Trail is a company town. A lot of people get real defensive because it could affect their livelihood,” Kalamarides said. “Even those of us who experienced the illness – I use a catheter to use the bathroom – are sensitive about it.”
Northport resident Barb Anderson thinks the community needs answers.
“I was counting up all the people I know with Crohn’s disease and colitis just the other day,” she said. “I came up with 15 people.”
The list includes her daughter, Kelsey Anderson, a graduate student in Seattle. Kelsey – Gail Leaden’s friend – was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis during her junior year of high school. At Rockwood Clinic in Spokane, where the diagnosis was made, doctors were surprised that two of Kelsey’s classmates had the same illness, said Barb Anderson. Leaden also remains troubled by the coincidence. It makes her suspect “that something’s not right.”
“I hope they can find an answer,” she said. “Was there a cause behind it, or was it a fluke?”
Four commentsAdd comment
Will Northport finally get answers we’ve been asking for years? Let’s hope so. There is a reason for this cluster and the people of Northport deserve to know why, even if it will be uncomfortable for relations with the Trail community. Let’s hope that the people of Northport will support this effort to find out what is making people sick. Shouldn’t we know the truth so we can know the risks?
Great job Jamie Paparich for making this study happen!
I remember being aghast when I first saw those slag piles on the Columbia River, had no idea, was just sight-seeing on a road trip to Canada back in the early 90’s and that gruesome sight as well as the belching stinking Cominco plant just blew me away. Disgusting. Have no doubt that’s the proximate cause of the health problems in that area.
Hey SR Editors,
How about establishing a process whereby anyone who is accurately reported for posting an ad or talking off topic immediately has their name and email blocked here to fore – such as marymoss6. Granted there are work arounds but it will be painful. No one wants these morons posting.
ATTN: Past & Present Northport Residents diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s
Disease, Diverticulitis, Ileitis, or any otherInflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
RE: Contact Information to Receive Survey for Epidemiological Study Conducted
by Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America
As mentioned in Becky Kramer’s excellent article; Dr. Josh Korzenik and Dr. Sharyle Folwer from Massachusetts General Hospital’s, in cooperation
of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, received the funding and approval to conduct
an epidemiological study of Northport residents, both current and past, who have been
diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, crohn’s, or any other IBD disease.
This is a ground breaking study, which countless concerned groups and residents have spent
decades fighting to get done. The results of this study can prevent future generations from the
pain and suffering of the illnesses mentioned above, as well as finding better ways to treat, or
even cure, them.
All that is required from participants who are eligible for the study is to complete a simple online
survey (or have the survey mailed to you).
The survey includes questions that will assist them in discovering similarities of impacted
residents, (such as age, diet, use of river, period of time exposed, as well as family health history
and lifestyle, etc.)
All information provided will be confidential and seen only by Dr. Fowler and Dr. Korzenik. You
may be contacted for your medical record regarding the diagnosis and treatment of the colitis
(crohn’s, etc.). If you do not have these records, or are unable to locate them, they will do the
legwork for you based on details you can provide (city, state, year diagnosed).
Anyone who does, or did, live in or near Northport, WA, for any length of time, and have been
diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Diverticulitis, Iileitis, or any other IBD.
Contact Information Needed from Participants – ASAP**
Please send either your e-mail or home address, (depending on where you would like to receive
the survey), to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
If you are unable to send it via e-mail please mail your address to: J.Paparich 5013 Snowy Mtn.
Drive Winnemucca, NV 89445 or call me at 775.750.6384.
This information is needed as soon as possible.
Please pass this information on to anyone you know who may be eligible for this study. If you
have a deceased family member who suffered from any of the illnesses please complete a
study for them.
It will only take a few minutes of your time to complete this survey that could help countless
people from the pain and suffering you have had to endure.
Do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns at 775.750.6384 or
For more information on the Northport Project go to: www.northportproject.wordpress.com
Thank you so much for your participation!