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Health, Science, Environment

New Health Survey Fails To Dispel Concerns About Industrial Contamination In North St. Louis County

The "plume" of TCE-contaminated groundwater in Elmwood Park is shown in light blue in the top left of this map.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

After years of concern, residents of Elmwood Park aren't any closer to knowing if they are being harmed by chemical vapors.

In the late 1980s, the industrial chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE, was first detected in groundwater under the North St. Louis County neighborhood. The contamination came from spills at the nearby Missouri Metals Shaping Company.

The water coming out of household taps in Elmwood Park doesn’t come from the ground, so no one is drinking, cooking, or bathing in TCE. But the odorless vapors have seeped up through the soil and been detected in some area basements.

Neighborhood residents have complained of health problems for decades. In January, the St. Louis County Department of Health began a door-to-door survey to see if any health issues could be linked to TCE.

The county released the results this week.

They were inconclusive.

On the plus side, the survey didn’t find unusually high rates of any known TCE-related health conditions in the neighborhood. Typically, illness related to TCE exposure include:

  • Fetal heart defects, if the mother is exposed to TCE during the first trimester of pregnancy, even for less than three weeks
  • Auto-immune disorders
  • Kidney damage
  • Cancer ― specifically kidney cancer, liver cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

But County health department director Dolores Gunn said that doesn't mean residents aren't at risk.
The survey had a number of limitations that make its results unreliable.

For one thing, fewer than 40 percent of the 144 eligible households participated, resulting in only 175 completed health surveys.

Gunn said that’s too few to definitively link any health problems to TCE.

“We would have liked to see more participants, because it would give us a much larger sample size, and a much more valid survey result,” Gunn said.

This diagram shows which households in Elmwood Park have had vapor removal systems installed. They are available to residents living west of Dielman Road, free of charge (note that north is to the right in this diagram).
Saint Louis County Department of Health

Elmwood Park residents did have elevated rates of heart disease compared to other Missourians but enough people had been diagnosed before moving to Elmwood Park that their conditions couldn’t be attributed to contamination there.

In addition to making repeated visits to current residents, survey workers tried to locate anyone who had moved away from the neighborhood in the past ten years. But even using social media, newspaper ads, community meetings and word of mouth, they could only track down 30 previous residents ― too few for a statistical analysis.

Gunn said in the future, the county would consider expanding the survey to include people who left the area before 2004, or who died of their medical conditions if residents want that, and if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state health department provide scientific support.

But she said she understands why some community members might be reluctant to participate.

“This community has been having an issue with this TCE exposure for decades,” Gunn said. “They’ve talked to the EPA, they’ve talked to the state health department. They’ve felt as though no one was out there listening to them. And they have honestly just lost a lot of faith in government.”

Gunn said it will be up to local, state and federal agencies to try to rebuild that trust.

Actual clean-up of the groundwater ― which would be overseen by the EPA ― has yet to begin.

In the meantime, Gunn encourages all residents in the contaminated area to have vapor removal systems installed in their homes. The current owner of Missouri Metals, PerkinElmer, is covering the costs. Residents can contact the company's consultant, Burns & McDonnell, to arrange the installation:

Contact person: Tom Zychinski
Phone: (314) 682-1583
E-mail: tzychinsky@burnsmcd.com

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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