A federal agency will do a study to determine if there are any health implications for Scottsdale residents who lived in the North Indian Bend Wash Superfund site prior to 1981, when a suspected cancer-causing degreaser was found in drinking water wells.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the principal federal public health agency involved with hazardous waste issues, confirmed Friday it is planning a health consultation to figure out how much trichloroethylene, or TCE, residents were exposed to.
“In considering your concerns related to exposures to children who resided in the community during the decade prior to the closure of the contaminated municipal wells in 1981, we have determined that further evaluation is necessary,” wrote William Cibulas Jr., director of the agency’s division of health assessment and consultation. The letter was sent to former Scottsdale resident Devawn Oberlender, who has Graves’ disease and petitioned the agency for the study.
The Superfund site is a 13-square-mile area in Scottsdale and Tempe. It is bounded roughly by the Salt River on the south, Chaparral Road on the north, Scottsdale Road on the west and Loop 101 on the east.
Authorities will look at the available environmental data and the way residents used water at the time to as- sess possible levels of exposure, said Sue Neurath, the agency’s petition coordinator. They also will look at whether residents were exposed to TCE through breathing, eating and contact with soil.
The data will be used to determine implications to public health, and the agency will determine if warnings should be passed on to people who lived in the Superfund site at the time, Neurath said.
Oberlender, a Virginia resident who grew up in Scottsdale between 1971 and 1989, has been pressing federal, state and city officials to look at health issues related to the site.
“I’m thrilled that the wheels have begun to turn on this issue,” Oberlender wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. “I’m hopeful it is a first step towards actually doing a health assessment, which would reveal whether or not there is a cancer cluster in former NIBW residents.”
A health consultation is not the same as a medical exam, a community health study or a public health assessment. It can, however, lead to a health assessment that would include communitywide rates of illness, disease and death compared with national and state rates.
Darlene Peterson, a 49-year resident of south Scottsdale who is familiar with the TCE contamination, had mixed feelings concerning whether the health consultation will be beneficial to her and her longtime neighbors.
“It’s a little late,” she said. “But I guess better late than never.”
In discussions with neighbors over the years, Peterson said she believes there is at least anecdotal evidence that points to high cancer rates in her neighborhood.
City spokesman Pat Dodds said Oberlender is appealing to the right people.
“This is a health issue, and she’s dealing with the agencies that are most concerned in figuring out the health implications,” he said.
A health assessment done on the Superfund site in 1989 concluded human exposure to lead and TCE did not appear to be occurring at that time.
Neurath said the earlier study doesn’t prevent the agency from doing another health assessment.
“Everything is exposuredriven so the first thing is to understand the exposure,” she said.
The length of the consultation depends on how much data there are and how easy it is for the team to gather it, Neurath said.
Because of the workload at the agency, the petition won’t be assigned to a health assessor for three to four months, officials said.
The agency provides about 1,000 health consultations a year, with most of the requests coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state and local health and environmental departments.
TCE was used to clean circuit boards at companies in the area beginning in the 1950s.
It was dumped down dry wells, sewers and into leaching beds for three decades until it was discovered in five drinking water wells that serve Scottsdale.
The wells, three of which were owned by Phoenix until Scottsdale purchased them in 1987, were closed immediately, but concentrations of TCE were as high as 390 parts per billion near the time they were shut, according to the EPA.
The federal standard for drinking water is less than 5 parts per billion.
Scottsdale’s drinking water meets all federal standards today, and no deaths have been attributed to the contamination.
Four companies — Motorola, GlaxoSmithKline, Salt River Project and SMI Holding, formerly Siemens — have claimed the lion’s share of the more than $100 million in cleanup costs.
Dennis Shirley, a project coordinator for the companies, said last week the firms cleaning up the site defer to public health agencies when determining health effects.
It is expected to take 20 more years to clean up 90 percent of all the TCE in the groundwater, Shirley said.
TCE and cancer
Some studies with mice and rats have suggested that high levels of TCE may cause liver, kidney or lung cancer. Some studies of people exposed over long periods to high levels of TCE in drinking water or in workplace air have found evidence of increased cancer.
In its Ninth Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program determined TCE is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that TCE is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Finding a physician
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry refers individuals to the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics. These clinics have doctors who specialize in treating illnesses caused by chemical exposure. Call (800) 232-4636 for more information.
Those who want additional information about the health consultation should call Sue Neurath, ATSDR petition coordinator, at (404) 498-0374 or e-mail SNeurath@cdc.gov.
Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry