Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Deer Lodge residents, including children, are not at risk from arsenic exposure at Arrow Stone Park (Missoulian, May 10).

When the Environmental Protection Agency estimates exposure and risk to children and adults in the Clark Fork Basin, the estimates are based upon nearly two decades of scientific and public health study in the area. Under circumstances where risks (particularly childhood risks) are estimated to be anything other than negligible, the EPA has taken action to reduce or eliminate exposure. This includes areas recently cleaned up in and around Deer Lodge.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recommended more sampling in the park based on the assumption of pica behavior in children. While most children inadvertently consume small amounts of dirt because they put their fingers and toys in their mouths, it is rare for children to display pica behavior, a condition where they eat handfuls of dirt. If a child eats large quantities of dirt, the problem should be addressed by the parents and health care professionals.

The EPA agrees with ATSDR that public education on arsenic exposure is a good idea and has begun to work with Powell County officials to accomplish this. The EPA is working with ATSDR to gather information that will help us understand how common pica behavior may be in children and how much dirt such children may actually consume.

An exposure investigation conducted by ATSDR and the EPA in June 1998 showed no elevated levels of arsenic based on hair and urine samples. The EPA has extensively characterized the area around and upstream of Arrow Stone Park through more than 2,000 samples. Medical screening in the Clark Fork Basin (Butte and Anaconda), including Deer Lodge, has not identified a single incidence of childhood arsenic "poisoning" from soil exposure as recent news articles implied. In fact, there are no known cases of arsenic poisoning resulting from soil in the country.

It is therefore incorrect to compare the situation to Libby in 1980 as suggested by state health officials. Libby's asbestos contamination poses risks which are well-documented and demonstrated. There are documented fatalities resulting from asbestos exposure. In Libby, the EPA has taken and continues to take aggressive action to address human health risks.

The EPA expects to make a decision on a remedy for the Clark Fork River in early 2002. The decision will incorporate any new information regarding arsenic exposure risks at Arrow Stone Park. Our cleanup goal is for yards, parks and schools to be safe for children to play in.

John Wardell is director of the Montana office of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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