There’s an ongoing debate in Butte about public health and exposure to heavy metals in the environment from historic and current mining operations. The most recent controversy flared up this week between scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency, over the contents of dirty diapers.
Last year, a team of independent researchers collected samples of baby poop from 32 infants born in Butte and Columbia, South Carolina and tested them for heavy metals. The results of the peer-reviewed study dominated local headlines, grabbing the attention of the community and government agencies. Federal officials this week called for the study to be retracted from the academic journal.
Katie Hailer, a chemist at Montana Tech who worked on the study, says to some extent, baby’s first poop, called meconium, can reveal what a fetus was exposed to in utero. And, it’s free, and easy to get.
"Meconium is gonna be passed whether you want it to be or not," she says. "And it goes into a diaper and it goes in the trash. And most people are not attached to meconium in any way, and they’re more than willing to let you take it with you."
Hailer says the goal of this exploratory study was to see if they could detect heavy metals in the poop, and how levels in Butte, a copper mining town and Superfund site, compare to a non-industrial community across the country.
What they found was that, "The metal concentrations in Butte were very different than South Carolina," Hailer says.
According to the researchers, concentrations of copper, zinc and manganese were more than 1,000 times higher in Butte baby poop versus South Carolina. They published the results in the academic journal, Science of the Total Environment, in December, concluding those levels of metals were cause for “immediate concern” and a “potential public health emergency."
EPA officials strongly disagreed with that characterization of the findings, especially the claim about the “potential public health emergency."
Charlie Partridge, a toxicologist with EPA Region 8 spoke during a presentation to Butte-Silver Bow County’s Board of Health on Wednesday morning.
"Now that’s something that EPA takes extremely seriously. We’ve only declared that once, under Superfund. That was in Libby, Montana, where we actually had dead bodies, we had deaths, we had death records."
He said EPA looks at all new information concerning health, the environment, and Superfund, and did due diligence by conducting their own review of this independent study.
After screening the meconium data from Butte, and comparing the pilot study to other relevant studies from the last 50 years, EPA came to the opposite conclusion: that Butte numbers are normal, and that South Carolina is the real outlier.
"The Butte metal concentrations in meconium appear to be exactly what you'd expect based on the scientific literature. The Columbia, South Carolina meconium data are uncharacteristically low," Partridge said.
[Related: Richest Hill - Exploring the past, present and future of one of America's most notorious Superfund sites.]
Partridge stressed that meconium isn’t the best way to gauge prenatal metal exposure, because copper, manganese and zinc are essential micronutrients that should be in poop. And there’s no established baseline of what is a safe level of metals in meconium.
EPA said based on their review, there is no public health emergency in Butte, and they’re going to ask the academic journal to retract the study, if the authors do not do it themselves.
Nikia Greene, EPA’s local Superfund project manager, says that’s necessary because, "There’s been a lot of fear here in Butte. And if independent researchers and others are putting out misperceptions or false information about the safety and the health of Butte citizens, then someone needs to step up and stop it."
Chemist Katie Hailer again.
"I can agree with them that maybe some of the language should have been tempered. I understand their frustration with the use of “potential public health emergency.” Maybe the discussion surrounding the study would be completely different if things had been worded a little bit differently from the beginning."
However, because their study was so limited in scope, she says there’s not enough evidence to know why there was such a big difference in the amount of metals found in baby poop between Butte and South Carolina. She believes that question warrants further research.
"I don't think that we should attack scientific data because we don't like the data that came from that scientific study. And I feel like that's what has happened here."
Hailer said the study authors, which include Suzanne McDermott, an epidemiologist, and Jamie Lead, a chemist, both in South Carolina, have no intention of retracting their meconium study, and are seeking funding to conduct a more comprehensive investigation.
After the meeting on Wednesday, I asked Seth Cornell, a local physician and Board of Health member, if he still had concerns about the meconium study. He said he agrees with EPA that there’s probably not a health emergency, but we have to be data driven.
"The data to me says that there's ongoing exposure. Whether or not the exposure translates to health outcomes, that's a whole 'nother difficult question. There haven’t been any strong studies to tie exposure to health outcomes. I think there's gonna be work to be done from here 'till eternity. Unless the population of Butte picks up and moves off the Superfund site, we’re gonna have to be looking at these things."
Butte’s health department is forming a new advisory committee to discuss and analyze any new research or studies concerning the health of Mining City residents.