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Elyse Kunz and Elyse Griffin

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Something in the Air

As 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 health

By Chet Hardin

Today, 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 close.”

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 of self-control.

“Some 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.

“I 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.

“That 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?

“I 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 to breathe.”

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.

It’s 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.

“Today, 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 for years.

“Today’s 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.

“By 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 vinegar.

“It 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 results.

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 of 40,000.

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.

“Lafarge 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.

“This 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 sampled.

“We 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.”

“I’d 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 the industry.

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.

“I 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.

“Somehow, we CASE members have to talk to people, get them out of the woodwork, to not be so frightened,” Joan Ross says.

“People 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.”

“And 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 Ravena.”

‘Have 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 poisoning.

“Most 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 brain.”

“Almost 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.

“There 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.”

“These 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.

“He 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 listening.”

“I 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 or contact CASE at

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