FAIRFIELD -- The arsenic exposure risk in Fairfield is official, the health danger real.
Those who live in the Cedar Valley town stand a higher risk of getting some cancers, nerve damage and brain injury with exposure to contaminants from old mine tailings over an extended period of time, according to a new Utah study.
"I think this report will go a long way toward helping us get the visibility we need to get some help for this problem," said Mayor Michael Burch at presentation of the study on Nov. 10 at the Historic Fairfield Schoolhouse.
Residents had some of their arsenic fears confirmed, other worries put to rest and questions answered by representatives from the Environmental Epidemiology Program and Utah Department of Environmental Quality as the agency representatives presented their public health assessment.
Fairfield residents anxiously looked at the map to identify their homes and farmlands and examined copies of the report at the town hall meeting.
Gardening, a popular pursuit in Fairfield, could potentially increase health risks both from exposure to the arsenic in the soil and from eating vegetables that have absorbed the arsenic in areas where the garden soil is contaminated. One of the community questionnaire tables showed that a majority of Fairfield residents have gardens, many watered with irrigation water, so it is important for residents to identify the properties and ditches where contamination levels are high.
"I was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 45. I've lived here all my life and can't help but think that the contamination is a factor," said David Hansen, Fairfield resident and avid gardener.
"I can't make the statement that it's a direct result, but I can say that, based on this assessment, there is a risk," said Dr. Craig J. Dietrich, a Utah Department of Health toxicologist.
The news wasn't all bad.
"The drinking water is absolutely safe," Dietrich said.
The detailed public health assessment is based on a human health risk analysis of test results from hundreds of samples of soil, water and air from the old Manning Canyon Mine site and sites in the Town of Fairfield taken from 1997-2009 by several agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Former Fairfield mayor Lynn Gillies requested a human health assessment of the findings in 2009.
The report concluded that the cancer risks for children and adults exceed the acceptable range. In addition, another high level heavy metal contaminant found in Fairfield called thallium, poses an increased risk of nerve damage and brain injury. Luckily, the site with the highest level of contamination is along a road that is paved.
"Can we get a priority on pot hole repair?" Town Councilman Peter Lawrence asked.
"We don't set policy for UDOT, but as a community you could monitor pot holes and put recommendations in place," said Sam LeFevre, Utah Department of Health, Environmental Epidemiology manager.
Prepared by the Utah Department of Health Bureau of Epidemiology under a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the 70-page report concludes arsenic in some areas is high enough to put residents at increased risk of skin, liver, bladder and lung cancers with high level long-term exposure.
"We're here to provide an objective third-party look at the data and assess the potential risk to humans with various levels of exposure," Dietrich said.
Downhill wind and water erosion have contaminated Fairfield with arsenic and other toxic substances left in mine tailings from gold processing at the Manning Canyon Mill which operated from approximately 1890-1937 in the Oquirrh Mountains west of Fairfield.
The Bureau of Land Management completed a remediation project at the Manning Canyon site in 2007, so no further contamination will migrate down into Fairfield. But the contamination already in Fairfield was not included in the cleanup because private lands do not fall under the jurisdiction of the BLM.
"I know the history is well-documented. It's more than a decade long," said Dave Allinson of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
The report includes numerous tables of sample readings and maps that pinpoint areas of highest arsenic contamination. Dietrich showed a projection of the sample-site map at the meeting.
Residents had questions about the safety of private wells, irrigation water and the health effects of arsenic contamination in standing surface water, soil and air, especially on children.
"I had my own well tested to make sure it was safe for my daughter," said one resident.
Dietrich handed out a fact sheet summarizing the public health assessment's conclusions and recommendations. The fact sheet stated that water samples from private wells and Big Spring Creek that supplies Fairfield's municipal water were shown to be free from harmful levels of arsenic, thallium and mercury.
Seasonal surface water standing in the first 700 feet of Big Creek Ditch east of State Road 73, however, contains unhealthy levels of arsenic and thallium, according to the fact sheet.
"Kids playing in standing water could be a problem. Our strongest recommendation is that parents should not allow children to be exposed to these areas," Dietrich said.
Air samples did not show any elevated arsenic concentrations. Dietrich said that the Department of Health is recommending additional air studies to be done during spring plowing season when wind could spread more dust with elevated arsenic levels. In the meantime, he cautioned residents with respiratory health problems not to engage in strenuous outdoor activities during windy conditions to avoid long-term exposure.
According to the report, some residential properties contain levels of arsenic that could pose a health risk only after exposure of more than a year. But even short-term exposure to the contaminated soil of some non-residential properties could cause a health risk.
"We're recommending that the town put in some zoning and institutional controls to limit development in the areas of highest contamination, and that developers be required to clean up the areas before they are allowed to build," LeFevre said.
"How do we figure out how to deal with this? We don't have $100,000 to clean it up," said Amy Taylor.
"Your mayors are on the right path, getting the testing done," LeFevre said.
For more information on the Fairfield contamination levels, visit the Utah Department of Health Environmental Epidemiology Program website at www.health.utah.gov/enviroepi/ or call (801) 538-6191.