As I work to heighten awareness of the Uranium issues here in New Mexico and beyond I want you to know that I realize this is not fun info to receive. Believe me I know from personal experience. If you do not want to be informed please let me know so that I can narrow my efforts to people that want to be involved in alerting their friends and neighbors to the potential affects upon their health and well being. I have taken our President at his word and intend to participate in our country’s transformation in a way that is founded at the community level. Your participation is sought and welcomed.
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In Peace & Light,
Valley Has Highest Uranium Levels in the State
By Bryant Furlow
SUN Staff Writer ©2008 Rio Grande SUN
Friday, December 26, 2008 1:32 PM MST
A five-year study completed by the state Health Department this year revealed that Rio Arriba County residents have some of the highest body levels of uranium on record in the United States nine times higher than the national average and not all of the uranium is coming from drinking water, according to documents obtained by the SUN.
But Health Department officials have not told the public or Rio Arriba County officials of the findings, and a planned investi gation into health problems that may be tied to the exposures may be cut, according to state Health Department Environmental Health Epidemiology Bureau Chief Heidi Krapfl.
The study of 768 volunteers from 17 New Mexico counties started in 2004 and took five years to complete. Scientists measured the concentrations of numerous heavy metals in study participants’ urine, including uranium, arsenic, mercury and selenium.
Health Department scientists have already reported the study’s results to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which funded the study, and presented their findings at an Oct. 12 scientific conference in Pasadena, Calif. But when the SUN requested a copy of the study, Krapfl said the writing of the final report is “still in process” and has not been finalized. Instead the SUN has obtained a copy of the 22-page scientific conference report and a department summary of the report.
The study included 124 study participants in Rio Arriba County and 101 participants living in Santa Fe County, according to Health Department documents.
“It’s a serious health concern and it deserves additional attention,” Len Flowers, a state Environmental Health Epidemiology Bureau toxicologist, said. “Uranium levels (in Rio Arriba County residents’ urine) do exceed EPA threshold levels for health concerns. The primary concern is kidney disease. Toxicology studies lead us to expect some damage to some people’s kidneys, depending on in dividual dietary and genetic variability. People with diabetes are definitely vulnerable.”
“This has absolutely nothing to do with Los Alamos National Lab,” state Environment Department Liquid Waste Program Manager Dennis McQuillan said. “There are exposed outcroppings of uranium in the area. I would have been surprised if the residents’ uranium levels weren’t elevated.”
The study found that the 159 study participants living within a nine-mile wide stretch of northern Santa Fe and southern Rio Arriba counties have an average urine concentration of uranium of 0.25 parts per billion compared with an average of .03 parts per billion elsewhere in New Mexico, study documents show. By way of comparison, the U.S. average concentration of urinary uranium is 0.009 parts per billion, according to the CDC. The average uranium concentrations in drinking water in the area, at 55 parts per billion, are more than 10 times higher than the average of 4.2 parts per billion in the rest of New Mexico, according to a Health Department analysis.
“Wow. That’s very high (for urine),” Mount Sinai School of Medicine Pediatrics Professor Joel Foreman said.
Foreman, an expert on environmental health issues among children, recently published a study of the effects of drinking water uranium on one child’s kidney function.
“They should study health effects,” he said.
Health Department documents indicate that as recently as Oct. 12, Department scientists planned a follow-up investigation into the health effects of high levels of uranium exposure in Rio Arriba County. In the 22-page scientific conference report, they told colleagues from across the U.S. that the study’s results “directed further study … to link exposure data with health outcome data” such as “biomarkers of renal (kidney) function.” Krapfl confirmed that there had been plans to seek state funding to study the health effects of high-level uranium exposures.
“We are currently developing a plan to explore linking uranium concentration in drinking water and end-stage renal disease data,” Krapfl said.
She did not explain why drinking water levels of uranium, rather than urine levels, would be used in the health study, given the modest overall relationship between urine and drinking water levels of the metal.
“It’s still possible there will be a follow-up (health investigation),” Krapfl said. “The problem is we don’t have any more funding. Not right now. General funds were earmarked for uranium research, but they may be cut.”
The Environmental Health and Epidemiology Bureau is part of the Health Department and sought funding for the follow-up health investigation from Krapfl’s superiors, Krapfl said. She initially told the SUN that the proposed study had been “cut” by the Health Department, but later clarified that the across-the-board department budget cuts affectin g the health investigation are only “proposed” cuts and have not been finalized.
“That’s good news,” she said. “It means there’s still a possibility that there will be funding for a health investigation.”
Water … And Food?
The state has known that many private wells in Rio Arriba County have very high uranium levels, McQuillan said. But the Health Department study found that drinking water levels of uranium have a surprisingly modest association with urine levels, according to a study summary, suggesting “alternative routes of exposure” such as food grown in uranium-rich soil.
“Participants with high uranium levels in their drinking water had high urine levels,” Flowers clarified. “But not all residents with high urine levels of uranium had high levels in their drinking water.”
One possible alternative route of exposure is occupational exposure in mines or uranium mills, Flowers said.
The study included questionnaires asking where study participants work, but Flowers pointed out that a number of the participants were retired and there were no questions about where retirees had worked in the past.
“I wouldn’t rule out the Lab yet,” she said. “I don’t want to say specifically the Lab is a possibility. I just don’t have the data to say it’s the Lab or not the Lab.”
Santa Fe County resident Tony Rivera, of Pojo aque, said he had not heard of the study.
“I know people with diabetes and kidney problems,” Rivera said. “It would be well worth the state’s money to investigate further. God knows we spend money on less worthy things. A lot of people around here work at the Los Alamos Lab. (Study participants) may have been contaminated there instead of just from the water.”
The Health Department did not conduct “isotopic analyses” that could differentiate naturally occurring uranium from uranium contamination resulting from human activities, Krapfl said.
“But the map shows known natural uranium ore deposits right there,” Krapfl emphasized.
Low Public Interest
The Health Department has planned public meetings in Questa to discuss the study findings for Taos County. But similar meetings are not yet planned for the Española Valley communities, where the highest uranium body levels in the state were discovered, Department officials said.
“We’ve been talking to people in Questa and had already started a community outreach process there because of preexisting concerns (about mining pollution),” Flowers said. “There has not been the same level of community interest (in the Española Valley) as in Questa.”
Krapfl said there is not currently funding for public outreach efforts.
“In my case, we had a homeowner’s association meeting (in Nambé) and I told my neighbors we had about five times the (federal) uranium comparison value,” Krapfl said. “But for me to inform other study participants’ neighbors of elevated uranium levels would be problematic (because of privacy concerns).”
County officials and residents were surprised to learn of the study’s findings.
“This is news to me,” Rio Arriba County Director of Health and Human Services Lauren Reichelt said. “I don’t want residents to be unduly alarmed, but I do think it would be a good idea for the Health Department to come up here and tell us what they found and what it means for our residents.”
Neither State Rep. Debbie Rodella (D-La Mesilla) nor Rio Arriba County Commission Chairman Alfredo Moñtoya had heard of the study. Both expressed interest in the Health Department presenting their findings to County officials and residents.
Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group Lead Organizer Sheri Kotowski had helped recruit study participants for the Health Department study but hadn’t been told the study was over.
“I’ve been really frustrated,” Kotowski said. “I’ve left phone messages and e-mailed over recent months and never got any responses. This is a really important study. You can’t keep the doors closed.”
Krapfl said that there was a protocol for contacting study participants to alert them to elevated levels of uranium or any other metal analyzed from part icipants’ urine. Participants confirm they received notification letters from the Health Department, but some were at a loss as to what to do with the information they received.
“They gave us our results and we definitely had questions,” said Ann Hendrie, of Dixon, a participant in the study. “I have high mercury and my husband has high arsenic. We had uranium, but not above the (health concern threshold) value. We called the Health Department and asked what we should do about our high arsenic and mercury levels and they said they didn’t know. I had no idea what to do with the information. It would be really good to have a community meeting about this study.”
The Health Department study included no children, but scientists agree that children’s levels of uranium now need to be investigated, in light of the findings among adults.
“Children typically experience higher levels of exposures than adults,” Foreman said. “Young children drinking formula made from tapwater will have higher exposures than other family members, for example. (Rio Arriba County) children should definitely be tested.”
Krapfl and Flowers agreed but explained that it is very difficult to get permission to study children.
“You don’t really want to include children unless you have exposures data suggesting a problem, and this was a baseline study. The CDC mandated the scope of the study, and federal agencies are not loose or flexible on these things,” Flowers said.
There’s not currently funding slated for follow-up investigations of children’s uranium levels, they explained.
Reverse osmosis water treatment units reduce the amount of uranium in drinking water, Krapfl emphasized.
“I live in Nambé,” Krapfl added. “We’d just bought the house (when the study started) and I had an reverse osmosis (RO) unit on our tap. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum uranium contamination level is 30 parts per billion, and our tap water was 150 parts per billion before reverse osmosis. But after RO, uranium was not detectable, so we were quite happy.”
Some Rio Arriba County residents may have less to celebrate, however.
“Reverse osmosis will reduce uranium levels in drinking water by 90 percent, but levels are so high in some wells in the County that even after R.O., uranium levels will be four times safe levels for those residents,” McQuilian said. “When you start out with outrageously high levels, R.O. won’t make the water safe. These are really high levels that are definitely of heath concern.”
Isotopic analyses of well water conducted by the Lab for the state Environment Department concluded that uranium in Rio Arriba County drinking water is from natural geological deposits, McQuillan said.
Even low uranium concentrations in drinking w ater can damage kidney function, notes a Health Department summary describing the study.