Kunz and Elyse Griffin
Photo: Alicia Solsman
in the Air
the EPA establishes the first-ever regulations on mercury
emissions from cement facilities, local residents and activists
worry that the Ravena plant’s toxic plume is damaging their
Elyse Griffin’s son is not the same child who, when he was
only 10 months old, began pinching his mother and pulling
her hair. “He was a very challenging baby. For that first
year, if he wasn’t nursing he was screaming, a very difficult
baby to soothe,” the young mother says. “I would walk with
him for hours, ’cause the motion seemed to be the only thing
that soothed him. He would only sleep for an hour and a half,
or two, at a time.”
She laughs about it now—sort of. “I am still traumatized from
that first year.”
At 18 months, her son (whose name Griffin has asked not be
used) was kicked out of day care; biting was an issue. “There
were parents who were upset and said that they were going
to pull their kid” if her son wasn’t turned out. She found
him a second day care, one that receives state funding, and
is governed by a board with the directive to not give up on
children. He didn’t get kicked out of there, “but he was pretty
He had been in pre-kindergarten for only a few weeks before
his teachers asked to meet with Griffin to discuss placing
him into special education. It wasn’t that he was unable to
learn; he is a smart and inquisitive 4-year-old, she says.
It was his social-emotional skills—his interaction with others,
his ability to stay still, to be quiet—that were lacking.
He suffered from severe mood swings, irritability, and lack
days and weeks he seemed really in control of his behavior
and other days and weeks were a disaster,” Griffin says. “I
was always trying to identify a pattern, his triggers, but
I could never figure out any rhyme or reason to his behaviors.
I just called him my spirited child, but over time I realized
there was this edge to him that just didn’t sit well with
me, like there was something the matter.”
She took him to a pediatrician who suggested that he was,
in fact, just a spirited child, and that he needed to be put
on Ritalin. But Ritalin wasn’t the answer Griffin was looking
for. Her son wasn’t just rowdy. He wasn’t simply misbehaving.
He didn’t need a chemical straight jacket.
Around that time, Griffin began to read news reports about
the pollution that pours out of the smokestack at Lafarge
Cement Plant on Route 9W in her hometown of Ravena. She was
born and raised in Ravena, and carried to her son to term
in the shadow of that plume of toxic kiln dust. She read about
the mercury and lead emissions and the effects of these heavy
metals on children. She wondered if there was a connection.
am trying to figure out why my son is getting kicked out of
day care, and why is he trying to beat everyone up,” she says.
“Why is he behaving this way?”
She contacted a leader in the field of integrative and functional
medicine, Dr. Mark Hyman of Lenox, Mass., and began testing
her son at a great expense. Insurance didn’t cover the costs.
She names the tests, an exhausted litany: blood, hair, urinary
challenge, urinary porphyrin, “I don’t know if you want me
to go on?” His blood tests turned up normal, but blood only
tests for recent exposure, and she and her son had been living
in Albany for years at that time. It was in the results of
his urine-challenge and hair tests that she discovered the
frightening extent of her son’s illness.
Urine challenge relies on the use of chelators, compounds
that attach to heavy metals in deep tissue, which are then
rejected by the body and excreted in the urine. This test
can reveal years-old toxic poisoning, which in her son’s case,
could go back to when he was developing in the womb.
is where we saw the very elevated mercury and lead,” she says.
“And his hair, I sent out the hair from his very first hair
cut, and the lead was off the charts.”
Dr. Hyman called her son a “heavy-metal kid,” and asked where
the mercury could have been coming from. They went through
her son’s history of foods, vaccinations, and amalgam fillings,
and their proximity to the Lafarge plant. On the boy’s chart,
Hyman concluded that his young patient suffered from “mercury
toxicity from cement-plant exposure.” Mercury is one of the
many toxic byproducts released from the raw materials during
the cement-making process.
This is speculation on the part of Hyman, Griffin is quick
to point out. There have been no health studies performed
by the state or anyone else to verify whether or not the 47
years of pollution produced by that cement plant have had
any adverse effects on the health of the people living and
working in Ravena and surrounding communities. It is one of
the great unknowns in Griffin’s life: Where, and how, did
her son get poisoned?
don’t know how much he got from me growing up in Ravena, or
from me eating a couple tuna fish sandwiches, or how much
of it was while he was developing, the exposure to the air
I was breathing,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever know
where those levels came from, but it has made me passionate
about the fact that there are these sources out there that
could be affecting people, and it needs to be stopped.”
Elyse Kunz, co-founder of Community Advocates for Safe Emissions,
an environmental advocacy group that she started last fall
with Griffin, is speaking before a small gathering of journalists
on the day before Earth Day in the press room of the Legislative
Office Building. “CASE came together last year,” she says,
“because of our shared concern about nearly five decades of
toxic air emissions from the Lafarge Cement Plant in Ravena.
Our primary goal is to ensure that the people in our community
have a healthy environment in which to live, and clean air
It is a historic day in the fight for clean-air regulations.
After years of legal battles, the Environmental Protection
Agency has announced its first-ever regulations of mercury,
and other pollutants, produced by cement plants such as the
one at Lafarge. The regulations will affect 163 plants nationwide,
and could reduce overall mercury emissions from these plants
by more than 80 percent.
Mercury is the one of the most toxic substances on the planet,
second only to plutonium.
In 2007, the EPA rated Lafarge as the fourth worst mercury
polluter in the United States. It was reported that between
2004 to 2006, the plant produced 400 pounds of mercury. Later
that number was revised, due to a more rigorous testing methodology,
claims Lafarge, to the current numbers found in the 2007 Toxics
Release Inventory data compiled by Lafarge and submitted to
the EPA. According to these numbers, the cement plant produces
and releases into the atmosphere 161 pounds of mercury compounds
yearly, along with 140,000 pounds of ammonia, 120,000 pounds
of hydrochloric acid, 610 pounds of lead compounds, 170 pounds
polycyclic aromatic compounds, and 2.2 grams of dioxins. Lafarge
also produces and landfills on-site 41,000 pounds of lead
and 13 pounds of mercury each year.
a long list of toxins, Kunz says, and the documented effects
on health from these materials is head-spinning.
According to CASE’s documentation, exposure to mercury can
lead to brain and kidney damage, and can pass from a mother’s
blood into a developing fetus, leading to multiple birth defects.
Ammonia is an irritant to skin, eyes, throat, and lungs, which
can lead to permanent lung damage and death. Hydrochloric
acid is a corrosive that can lead to chronic bronchitis, gastritis,
and dermatitis. Lead exposure can result in neurological damage
to the kidneys and heart, causing headaches, seizures, and
gastrointestinal disorders. Dioxins can cause developmental
deformities to the skeletal system, and can lead to the growth
of sarcomas, lymphomas, and stomach carcinomas.
some 2,300 children attend school within a four-mile radius
of this plant with 1,250 directly across the street at the
RCS Junior and Senior High Schools,” Kunz says. The particulate
matter that comes out of the plant’s smokestack reportedly
can travel up to 25 miles. “When you consider the number of
people who may be affected, when you factor in the health
risks posed by these substances, when you consider the cumulative
impact year after year for nearly 50 years, it is simply overwhelming.”
Susan Falzon, executive director of Friends of Hudson, has
been involved in the fight for these new mercury regulations
announcement is a long-overdue watershed moment for all of
us,” Falzon says. “It marks the first step in the end of a
decade-long battle. These new rules will require this industry
to rethink both the raw materials they use, as well as their
manufacturing processes. For the first time it will require
accurate monitoring and measuring of these pollutants and
will cause the need for using appropriate control technology.”
According to an EPA fact sheet, these new regulations state
that an existing plant can produce 43 pounds of mercury per
million tons of clinker (the material that is produced in
cement kilns). A new plant can produce only 14 pounds per
million tons. Lafarge currently produces 1,604,000 tons of
clinker, which means, based on early interpretations of these
regulations, that the company’s mercury emissions would be
limited to 68.8 pounds.
2013, the compliance date for the new rule, 23 years after
the Congress amended the Clean Air Act calling for the creation
of these rules, we will finally see them implemented,” says
Falzon. “And this implementation will go a long way to reducing
mercury levels in the global mercury stream, throughout the
U.S. and specifically here on the ground in New York state.”
John Reagan, the environmental manager for Lafarge, says that
whatever the regulations imposed by the EPA, the company will
meet them. Lafarge is dedicated to being a good corporate
neighbor, he says, and in 2006, Lafarge began the long application
and design process for a new, cleaner kiln and emissions-capture
technology, to replace the 45-year-old plant that it now uses.
The new plant would go online sometime around 2014. Now is
a critical time for the public to speak out, says Kunz. “We
have lived with this last cement plant for 50 years. We will
live with the next one for 50 more.”
There is a film that settles onto Hazel Lambert’s house and
car, she says, especially after a rain. She has lived in this
house next to the cement plant in Ravena for 40 years, and
she describes the crusty film that coats every inch of her
property as gritty, “like sandpaper.” The only method she’s
found to remove the grime is a vigorous washing with white
basically comes down like cement,” she says. “The roof of
my house is all cracked. We have replaced the shingles twice,
because it settles on the roof and cracks it.”
CASE reached out to Lambert, whose property lies in a valley
between two hills just north of Lafarge, to see if she would
allow state wildlife pathologist Dr. Ward Stone to take samples
of her soil. She agreed, and she is eager to find out the
Until speaking with CASE, Lambert hadn’t questioned the health
effects that this consistent coating of grime could have had
on her 10 children or herself. Now, she wonders about her
45-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed five years ago with
multiple sclerosis, and her other daughter who suffers with
attention-deficit disorder. There is ample medical research,
as Lambert has found online, that suggests links between mercury
poisoning and MS-like symptoms and ADD.
Seven of her children have asthma, like she does, and her
granddaughter, who was born in Ravena and lived there for
her first five years in the trailer next to Lambert’s house,
has asthma so severe that her doctors once tested her for
cystic fibrosis. Lambert now wonders about the ammonia that
comes out of Lafarge’s smokestack.
Since last fall, CASE learned of many other people in their
community who suffer from asthma, says Kunz, as well as many
children from the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District.
More distressing are the statistics of childhood cancers and
autism that CASE has compiled. Twenty-seven children have
been diagnosed with autism in the RCS school district. For
a district its size, that is nearly double the national average,
according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Further, CASE has learned that there are 19 known cases of
childhood cancer, including 10 cases of leukemia, two cases
of extracranial germ cell tumor and dysgerminoma, one case
of neuroblastoma, and four cases of Ewing’s sarcoma in Ravena
and its vicinity. Ewing’s sarcoma is extremely rare: It occurs
in only two people in 1 million. These four cases are found
within the Bethlehem and Coeymans area, with a total population
Are these illnesses the product of decades of toxins pouring
of out of the cement plant’s smokestack and possibly accumulating
in the soil and water surrounding Ravena? It’s a question
that no one has an answer to, says Griffin, speaking before
a large crowd in the Ravena fire station early in April.
doesn’t have the answer,” she says, “the state doesn’t have
the answer, and the federal government doesn’t have the answer.
We believe that this is a very reasonable question to ask.
The plant is across the street from two schools, where 1,200
kids learn and play each day. We have heard more than enough
stories of particulate settling on the cars in the school
parking lot, and property surrounding the plant. To our knowledge,
this dust has never been swabbed and tested for these various
heavy metals and toxins, until now.”
It is an exciting night for CASE. Ward Stone is explaining
the methodology of the study he has undertaken at the request
of CASE. It is a test that will cost roughly $2,000, which
CASE will pay for through fundraising, and one that Stone
will be doing in his free time.
is not my first mercury case,” Stone says. “I don’t know how
bad it is, but we are going to take a look. And we have already
started. We have already started taking soil samples. We are
looking for 20 different elements—mercury, lead, cadmium,
chromium . . . and when we get enough back to know what we
are dealing with, I’ll let you know.”
More than 30 people have contacted CASE to have their soil
have already picked out a couple of local ponds,” he says.
“If the mercury has been falling in there for a long time,
we will be able to see that in the sediments. And then we’ll
look at the fish that are in the ponds and see what may or
may not be building up in there.”
There will be no testing on humans, he says, though he intends
to turn all the data to the health department, and to publish
a scientific paper.
Stone agrees with Griffin: This appears to be the first study
of its kind in Ravena. He hasn’t been able to locate soil
data taken by any of the cement companies that have owned
the plant, nor any taken by the state. “That is quite surprising,”
he says. “I am still looking to see if there is some stored
away. It seems like a reasonable thing to have had done.”
like to see a clean, functioning plant right here in this
area,” Stone says. “But I notice that Lafarge has plants in
China, they have them in Africa; they are quite widespread.
They are going to produce cement more cheaply than we can
produce cement, even after they shipped it across the ocean
to America. And there are complaints about Lafarge in China,
and there are complaints about Lafarge in Africa. I want to
see the plant stay here, but I want to see it function as
cleanly as possible.”
Bob Ross, a member of CASE, points out that Lafarge has hundreds
of facilities in the United States and Canada, but this one
is particularly valuable. The close proximity of the limestone
quarry (which provides the essential raw material for cement)
to the deep Hudson River gives Lafarge easy, cheap access
to the entire East Coast. If the Lafarge Corporation ever
left, another company probably would move in. The concerns,
then, aren’t with Lafarge, but with the toxic byproducts of
Ross, who lives with his wife, Joan, roughly three miles southeast
of the Ravena plant in New Baltimore, was tested for heavy
metals in November of last year.
couldn’t believe the levels,” he says.
He had suddenly developed high blood pressure, which he had
never had before, and his doctors suggested doing a test for
lead. High lead levels can cause high blood pressure. So they
ran a provoked urinalysis, the same test as Griffin had done
on her son, and he learned that his lead levels were 48 times
higher than normal.
This lead poisoning, he says, has led to multiple neurological
and physical ailments. His memory has been affected. An involuntary
motion in his neck, due to an injury he sustained in infancy,
has increased dramatically. He has developed a pain in his
hands, and his fingers now lock back against palms, a condition
known as trigger fingers.
Trigger fingers, which get the name from the days of gunslingers,
can be treated, for a time, with cortisone shots. “But they
can only do that three times,” Joan Ross says, “because it
causes problems of its own.”
Ross can’t say for sure that his poisoning is a result of
living near the plant, “It’s hard to isolate and say, ‘I have
this and it is caused by this,’ ” but beyond his high levels
of lead, which is found in cement-kiln dust, he says, he also
has high levels of mercury and all the other heavy metals
that pour out into the air from Lafarge’s smokestack.
we CASE members have to talk to people, get them out of the
woodwork, to not be so frightened,” Joan Ross says.
need to come forward,” he adds, “and say, ‘This is what has
happened to my family. This is what happened to me.’ That
is more damning than numbers.”
people also need to remember that the dispersion of the emissions
can travel for miles,” she says. The people who live in Albany,
she warns, shouldn’t feel secure. “They shouldn’t feel safe.
They shouldn’t think that it is just happening to people in
you ever heard the saying that genetics loads the gun, and
the environment pulls the trigger?” asks Elyse Griffin, speaking
of her son. Everyone has a genetic predisposition to certain
diseases, certain physical failings. Some people are almost
assured heart disease, others may have a genetic predisposition
to cancer or Alzheimer’s or male-pattern baldness. And some
people, like her son, are genetically predisposed to heavy-metal
people do a good job detoxing these metals, like mercury and
lead,” Griffin says, “but some people don’t. Some people’s
bodies don’t do a good job of excreting it, and it sits in
their tissues. It sits in their livers, and it sits in their
20 percent of our children are affected, in one way or another,
by the toxins in their environment and in their food,” says
Dr. Mark Hyman. If this number is surprising, he adds, it
is because “the science has not been fully explained to the
public in a way that’s unbiased and not driven by public agencies
and corporations that have a stake in confusing and confounding
the issue to detract from any criticism of their activities.”
Children are much more susceptible to the impact of these
toxins, Hyman says, because of the rapid development of their
nervous system and their small size of their bodies, relative
to the dose that they are getting.
After diagnosing Griffin’s son as being deeply poisoned by
mercury and lead, Dr. Hyman designed a treatment regimen for
him. It’s a similar to the way he treats his autistic patients,
even though Griffin’s son is not autistic. He was diagnosed
with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
is a whole spectrum of disorders,” Hyman explains. “It is
called ASD, or autism spectrum disorders. It ranges from everything
from learning disabilities to dyslexia, to ADD, Asperger’s,
autism, even Tourette’s disorder. And they are all varying
degrees of various manifestations of the same fundamental
underlying problem, which is a toxic nutritional environment,
and a toxic chemical and toxic metal environment.”
are not bad kids,” he continues. “These are behavioral problems.
These are environmental issues. Not because these kids have
poor parenting, or because they are bad kids. It is because
we are poisoning our children through what we call food, which
isn’t food at all but industrial byproducts and environmental
toxins, which we are spewing out at ever-greater amounts after
the past eight years of Bush’s deliberate environmental policies
that deregulated industry.”
The treatment that Hyman chose for Griffin’s son is a holistic
one, focused on ridding his young body of its toxic contamination,
concurrent with healing the attendant damage caused by years
of carrying these toxins. The child suffers from vitamin deficiencies,
such as B12, which mercury is notorious for depleting. He
has hypothyroidism, multiple food intolerances and digestive
issues. A multivitamin will cause him to wet the bed for days.
is allergic,” says Griffin, “to 21 different foods.”
The transition period of working the treatment into their
lives has proven a difficult for Griffin and her son. Though
he only takes a small amount of medicine, and only a few days
in a row every couple of weeks, his diet has to be strictly
monitored. Griffin prepares every meal for him, following
a very strict regimen, and he has to exercise, what is for
a 4-year-old, super-human will power to avoid these foods
when he is at school with his friends.
And yet, Elyse Griffin’s son is simply not the same child
he was just six months ago. Since starting his treatment,
she says, “he is getting smiley-face stickers from his teachers
every day for keeping his hands and feet to himself, and for
know that it is going to be a long road,” she says. It can
take up to two years to rid a body of heavy metals, “but once
we get all the metals out, his body will be able to heal itself.”
If you suspect that your health has been affected by the emissions
from Lafarge, or to find out more information about CASE,
visit case-ny.org or contact CASE at firstname.lastname@example.org.