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Metals mixed in Valley's air may be a risk

By Kate York,

A recent air quality report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says metals in the air near Marietta could pose a health threat to residents close to industrial facilities.

The study, completed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, recommends that further, long-term testing be done to determine potential risks for people who live in the area of Ohio 7 occupied by Eramet, Eveready Battery, Solvay and Chevron Oil.

More than 500 people live within a one-mile radius of the facilities, with a residential area north of the plant and Marietta's location four miles northeast. The predominant wind direction in the area is northeast, making the city "downwind" of the companies.

"Available data suggests that metals in the air, particularly arsenic and manganese, could potentially pose a threat to residents close to the facilities of concern because they exceeded health-based screening values," says the report, prepared primarily by Michelle Colledge, an environmental health scientist with the agency.

The health-based screening levels are determined by the agency's evaluation guides and the Environmental Protection Agency's risk-based human health screening levels.

The air quality report states levels of arsenic and manganese consistently exceeded recommended levels in 2001 and 2002. Also, chromium was found at more than 30 times the screening level several times, and cadmium also was found in excess of the standards.

The testing site is at the Washington County Career Center on Ohio 676, far enough that the air sampling data may not even reflect the most highly exposed populations, according to the report.

The agency was petitioned by U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, in May 2000 to evaluate the health impact of air pollution in Washington County after the senator had received complaints from residents. The report was completed Aug. 15.

The report says residents have reported symptoms including headaches, burning eyes, nausea, difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle aches, tremors, bloody noses, sinus problems and sore throats, all things potentially caused by metals in the air.

"The air pollution from the plants directly affects the people who live in Marietta, Harmar Hill and Devola," said Tom Hockenbrocht, a resident of nearby Cole Coffman Road. "We used to constantly have bad air nights when they were cranking all kinds of things out of Eramet at 10 or 11 at night. It would virtually wake us up in the middle of the night with an ammoniated smell becoming a taste in our mouths."

Hockenbrocht said the "bad air nights" improved nearly two years ago after EPA representatives visited Eramet, but they still occur occasionally.

Rik Melvin, manager of environmental services at Eramet, has said in the past the company has ongoing efforts to reduce air emissions and saw total emissions decrease by 51.4 percent from 1999 to 2001.

Melvin was unavailable for comment Friday on the metals issue.

The Ohio EPA's 15th annual toxic release inventory, released in May, showed Eramet has gone from being the top toxic chemical emitter in Ohio in the early 1990s to eighth in 2002.

The agency's report says Eramet is the most significant concern to residents because of the "high volume of metals it refines annually (and) the facility being old enough to be exempt from many environmental pollution control regulations."

Hockenbrocht said he wants to see air quality improvements, but he thinks for some residents, the damage has already been done.

His wife, Su, has been battling pancreatic cancer since 2001 and Hockenbrocht said he believes air pollution played a part.

"There was no cancer in her family whatsoever, and she was 48 years old," said Hockenbrocht. "The doctors all say it was probably related to the environment, but science has never been able to come up with a direct proof. But if you go up and down the neighborhood, you will find an unbelievable amount of cancer."

The report did not address any issues related to citizens getting cancer from the metals in the air.

The Ohio EPA has found that those in Washington County already face a higher cancer risk than other areas.

"Changes have to be made, and we have to clean this area up," said Hockenbrocht. "Who in their right mind would want to bring their family here, knowing what we know?"

Who lives near plants

Total population: 539.

Total housing units: 221.

Children 6 or younger: 56.

Adults 65 or older: 57.

Source: 2000 U.S. Census

Other air quality concerns

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Committee found in 2002 Marietta has a high concentration of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the air. Production of PCBs was stopped in the U.S. in 1977 because low levels were known to cause health problems.

Washington County is one of 33 counties that failed to attain federal ozone standards, according to the Ohio EPA's July report. Ozone, produced when there is a chemical reaction between air pollution and sunlight, damages cells lining the lungs, causing swelling and inflammation.

According to the Ohio EPA's Toxic Release Inventory released in May, Washington County is No. 2 in the state for release of toxic chemicals.

For more information: The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report is available at local libraries in Ohio and West Virginia.


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