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"My neurosurgeon said, ‘Marcia, if we don’t do this surgery now, you are not going to live very much longer,’ ”
—Marcia Dingly
One Half-Life to Live
National Lead’s production of depleted uranium shells has left the Capital Region with a toxic legacy—and angry neighbors who want explanations for their deteriorating health

By Geraldean Hourigan
Photographs by Shannon DeCelle

Ron Russo was 3 years old when National Lead Industries began processing uranium at its plant on Central Avenue in 1958. The factory, which occupied an 11.2-acre plot of land that is now just west of the I-90 overpass, spewed tall billowing clouds of smoke into the Colonie sky. Russo grew up four blocks away, and spent most of his childhood playing behind the plant. “Behind the building was the creek,” he said. “We swam back there. We drank back there. We did everything back there.”

In October 2002, doctors informed Russo that he had 18 months to live. Now 49, Russo has nodules covering both lungs, liver disease, diabetes, and neuropathy. Russo blames his terminal illnesses, and the death of both of his parents within the last five years, on NL and the microscopic particles of depleted uranium that the plant spat into his old neighborhood for 26 years.

Marcia Dingly lived next door to NL on Central Avenue between 1977 and 1984. In 1985, she gave birth to a baby girl with several birth defects, including a hole in her heart and a rare form of Down’s Syndrome. The girl, who would have been 18 this year, died of adult leukemia at age 4.

Dingly herself is now living with a rare condition called Cushing’s Disease. A tumor has grown around her pituitary gland and part of her brain, causing the overproduction of cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands in order to maintain proper cardiovascular and metabolic function. Cushing’s disease has attacked her whole body. Dingly, 46, has diabetes, severe osteoporosis, psychiatric disturbances, severe deformation of the body, thyroid disease and two bladder diseases. All are in some way related to the rare brain tumor. Dingly too blames NL for her condition and the premature death of her daughter.

Russo and Dingly are not alone. According to a health survey conducted by the Albany-based Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, more than 250 members who lived in the community surrounding the plant during its years of operation have rare diseases or combinations of several health problems, and believe that their illnesses are related to NL’s emissions of depleted uranium. Though the plant has long been closed, residents still want answers about what its emissions did to them—and whether the current polluted site still poses a threat.

NL first purchased the Colo nie site in 1937 as a brass foundry, but in 1958 the plant morphed into a government production facility for projectiles containing depleted uranium. The NL plant also manufactured fuel from enriched uranium for experimental reactors between 1966 and 1972.

DU is a hard metal that burns on impact and is known for its ability to pierce armor. It is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process used in manufacturing nuclear fuels. It is produced at extremely high temperatures, making it insoluble and therefore indestructible.

It is also both radioactive and toxic. Just how dangerous its use is to human health is the subject of vociferous debate. It is primarily dangerous when it is in dust form and is inhaled or ingested. Both the radioactivity and the toxicity can cause DNA mutations.

The Pentagon gave DU an “all-clear” stamp in 1999, but veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome continue to point to DU as a possible source of their problems. Several hundred tons of DU were fired in both Gulf Wars and over the Balkans.

Col. Asaf Durakovic of the Uranium Medical Research Center in Washington refers to prior research on DU exposure as “poorly coordinated” with poor methodology. Newer data suggest a long-term risk of DU internal contamination that requires modification of established policies, he wrote in Military Medicine. Durakovic, chief of nuclear medicine at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from 1989-1997, says that the battlefields of the Gulf Wars and the Balkans continue to threaten civilians who survived those wars.

In 1980, Colonie’s NL plant had 200 employees. Ten stacks, each with a height of roughly 1,000 feet, billowed fine DU particles at high velocities into the air. Large DU particles from explosions in the chip burner were expelled from a side emergency vent system. In 1979, the New York State Supreme Court had ordered NL to restrict production because its uranium emissions were found to be in excess of state standards. Four years later, when it was still found to be releasing 54,000 times the allowed amount of DU, the plant was closed down. Community residents can only wonder how much it was emitting before 1979.

"Behind the building was the creek. We swam back there. We drank back there. We did everything back there.”
—Ron Russo

Two researchers at the University at Albany, John Arnason and Barb Fletcher, have shown that there are elevated levels of DU in the overlying soil just downstream of NL in Patroon Creek. After analyzing sediment cores extracted from the creek, Arnason and Fletcher noted that while the sediment contained consistent background levels of uranium below the depth of 1.9 meters (about 6.2 feet), there was a large spike of pure DU near the surface. That suggests a man-made source that suddenly appears around the late 1950’s and ceases abruptly. The DU levels in the surface soils are staggering, Arnason said. Sediments contained up to 320 ppm uranium, of which 25 percent to 95 precent is DU.*

Anne Rabe of the Citizen’s Environmental Coalition echoes many residents when she says the main question the plant left behind is, “What did NL’s toxic and radioactive emissions do to the community’s health?”

Over the years, federal and state agencies have conducted three studies to determine whether DU emissions from NL have harmed the health of plant workers and nearby residents. In each instance, their conclusion has been no, but critics say each report has serious flaws. The community is still seeking a full accounting.

In 1979, the New York State Department of Health took and analyzed urine and dust samples from the area surrounding the NL site. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which recently reviewed the DOH’s results, this study showed no measurable levels of radioactive DU. At the time, the test group was given a verbal confirmation of a clean bill of health by the Department of Health. But the actual results of the urinalysis were never included in the report. Some members of the test group have recently set out to get the results on paper from DOH, but so far they haven’t been successful.

The results of the test may have been accurate, as far as they go. But according to William Kelleher, a former employee with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the urine samples were taken three to six months after NL stopped production, giving the particles plenty of time to pass through the kidneys and bladder. If people had been exposed previously, or had inhaled rather than ingested particles, this study would not have given them any warnings.

The test group also did not represent those people with the highest exposures of DU during that time, says Kelleher. The Department of Health tested residents who lived directly outside NL’s fences. Those people would have mostly been exposed to larger particles blowing out of the emergency vent, but those particles were too big to be inhaled and trapped in the lungs. The finer, and therefore more dangerous, particles would have traveled farther.

The state Department of Health conducted a second study of the area surrounding the NL plant in 1993. That study looked at the incidence of cancer in a five-zip-code area surrounding the site. The study noted a high rate of certain cancers, but because the study examined such a large area, researchers determined that the increase had no relation to DU emissions.

Last August, the ATSDR issued its own report. That report concluded that there is “no public health hazard” associated with the NL site and surrounding properties. The preliminary report—a revised report is due late this winter following a three-month comment period—provoked an angry response from the neighboring Yardboro Avenue community and has reignited interest in the issue.

An outpouring of comments to ATSDR during the comment period for the preliminary report released in August forced the agency to extend the comment period in order to process them all. The comments were mostly from residents, and focused on health concerns, especially for children now living in the area.

ATSDR environmental scientist Aimee Treffiletti has been reviewing community responses to the August 2003 health consultation. “I did not expect to see the number of comments that came in,” she says. “Community involvement is good; we value it here.” ATSDR has told community activists that it is reviewing all the comments and that it hasn’t forgotten about the Yardboro Avenue community.

Treffiletti also said that the agency will clear up and flesh out some of the community’s concerns. For example, the revision will elaborate on the issue of children being exposed to DU via dirt piles and vegetable gardens.

But as for the overall conclusions, Treffiletti says, “The health call will not change.”

This frustrates community members and activists who are tired of studies based on partial data. “ATSDR had plenty of evidence about NL workers and NL contamination, but none of it was used in the report,” says Rabe. For example, according to Leonard Dietz, an atomic physicist who worked at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna for 25 years, the most recent ATSDR report neglects to include DU measurements that New York state made prior to NL being closed down. “The health study does not include former workers of NL,” he adds.

And according to Rabe, ATSDR ignored past epidemiological studies by DOH on workers exposed to radiation and DU and health problems associated with this; DOH studies in 1980 saying that people should be concerned about eating root vegetables in the Yardboro Avenue community; and studies given to them from CEC about various exposure pathways to DU. They treat them “with utter disdain,” says Rabe. “We have serious distrust with ATSDR that they would conduct a health study that would not reek of whitewash should they not include the community’s input.”

The ATSDR study claims that “touching or accidentally eating [DU particles] would not have made people sick.” Dietz, a certified radiological worker for 25 years, says that under no circumstances should any radiating material be touched with bare hands, much less eaten, no matter how small the quantity. But ATSDR concludes over and over again that there is “no apparent public hazard” associated with playing and gardening in soil contaminated by DU.

One point of contention between government sources and local activists is the amount of time that DU particles would exist in a person’s lungs.

Dietz said that his concern is “the long-term effects and the radioactivity of the particles.” According to an August 2003 study documented in Military Medicine, the half-life of a radioactive particle in the lungs is about 3.85 years. A radioactive half-life is how long it takes for substance to release approximately half its radioactivity. Based on the particles he studied, however, Dietz believes the half-life of NL’s emissions is much longer—by a couple of decades. “Anybody who breathes this stuff can expect that the DU will never leave their body,” he said. Dietz believes that DU’s residence time in the environment may be upwards of 100,000 years, giving particles enough time to be resuspended into the atmosphere under the proper conditions.

A committee of more than 200 active community members, organized through CEC, hopes to get answers through a new health study. CEC has so far gathered 89 community signatures on a petition strongly urging ATSDR to “conduct a comprehensive health study of the community impacted by NL industries’ pollution, with input from a community-appointed Citizen Advisory Committee.”

The committee also wants a more comprehensive cleanup of the site than what has been promised, and financial compensation for victims with related health problems.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of cleaning up the site, had hoped to complete the remediation process by next October. But site manager James Moore said that the recent discovery of more lead contamination under the site means the job won’t be completed until 2005.

“NL’s attitude at the time, was not to take samples or keep records because it would incriminate them later.”

Prior to the recent setback, the corps was optimistic about future plans for the site. Last year, Moore said publicly that the property would be so pristine that anything could be built on it.

But there seems to be a large discrepancy between the Army Corps of Engineers’ cleanup guidelines and what Dietz has calculated to be an acceptable level of DU contamination at the NL site. The Corps uses a cleanup guideline of 35 picocuries per gram of soil. This measure applies for “unrestricted public use.”

According to Dietz, however, the Corps’ guidelines would still leave 50 to 100 times as much DU at the Colonie site than would be there naturally. And those particles can be resuspended into the atmosphere, potentially to be inhaled by humans, he says.

While federal officials seem confident in the outcome of the cleanup, serious questions remain about just how much DU contamination there is already in the surrounding community.

Since the ATSDR report came out, Assemblyman Robert Prentiss has been pressuring several state agencies to respond to new information from Kelleher, the ex-DEC engineer, who toured the plant in 1979.

According to Kelleher, when he visited, the NL plant contained broken instruments for testing air quality and was missing other basic means of protecting workers. NL’s attitude at the time, he said, was not to take samples or keep records because it would incriminate them later.

Kelleher alleges that two state agencies—The Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation—along with the federal Departments of Energy and Defense, worked with NL to cover up exposures to DU and other contaminants in order to avoid lawsuits. According to Kelleher, DEC “did not lift a finger” to determine what the exposures to the public were from DU dust, PCBs, dioxins, lead, magnesium fluoride, and hydrofluoric acid. Anybody who attempted to see the records was severely punished, he says. Calls to DEC were not returned.

Kelleher also alleges that both DOD and DOE did not want the public to know that burning DU chips contaminated with PCB cutting oils, which produces dioxin, was banned at all nuclear installations by 1960—except National Lead!

Prentiss remains uncertain whether the problem is a coverup or simple incompetence, but he is very concerned, and, he says, the state and federal agencies involved clearly need to be investigated. Kelleher believes that DOD and DOE were focused on not letting the public know that since 1960, NL of Colonie had been producing more DU chips than seven other major installations combined.

Cathy Nasser grew up a few blocks away from NL, and certainly never received any public disclosures about the plant. “Nobody ever told us,” she says. “NL never had warning signs to get out of here. In the late ’50s there wasn’t even a fence there. My uncles and my father used to play football on the lawn of NL every weekend.” Nasser’s father died at 38 of lung cancer. “My father never smoked a cigarette in his life,” Nasser says.

Nasser recalls men walking around her neighborhood at night in hazmat suits using Geiger counters. “Nobody told the community anything,” she says.

DU contamination from the NL plant may have gone beyond the Yardboro Avenue community as well. In 1979, Dietz, the atomic physicist, discovered DU particles in weekly air samples taken by environmental air filters on the exterior of Knolls Atomic Power Lab in Niskayuna. In the first week of testing, four DU particles were detected in the air filters.

Based on the chemical composition of the particles, Knolls was able to trace their origin back to NL’s smokestacks, some 10 miles southeast of the lab. The four DU particles were less than 5 micrometers in size, says Dietz, making the radioactive particles easily inhaled and trapped in a person’s lungs, where they could perhaps remain indefinitely.

As a Knolls Lab employee, Dietz was not at liberty to disclose the information, but he began to talk when he retired in 1983, providing scientific support to claims by members of the Yardboro Avenue community that NL had not taken responsibility for the damage it caused.

Dietz said there is also evidence suggesting that DU particles from NL have traveled as far as West Milton’s Naval Training Site, 26 miles northwest of the plant.

Given his findings, Dietz is not happy with the geographic scope of the initial state-approved survey of contaminated land, which looked at 200 properties directly adjacent to the NL site. The initial study sites were designated back in the 1980s using wind distribution and pattern data. Based on this initial state-approved standard, no properties outside of a 1-mile radius from the NL plant were studied. Within that radius, the DOE determined that it needed to clean 56 of the 200 properties. But Dietz says that based on the discovery of DU particles far from the NL site, the Capital Region needs a 20-mile radius cleanup that would include Troy and Schenectady.

The Army Corps’ Moore stands by the initial survey and doesn’t see the need for a new survey. But he agrees that the ATSDR report failed to include data in its study that was readily available.

“There was a wealth of data made available to them [ATSDR], and the agency did not make use of the data,” Moore says. He also questions whether the plant really was emitting 54,000 times the state standard of atmospheric emissions, considering NL’s limited operations between 1979 and 1984. That figure is certain to be amended in the revised version of the report, he says.

Among members of the community, the basic concern is that the ATSDR report falls short of addressing the issues that affect families living near the site. The community doesn’t know enough about levels of emissions, the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition says. Just how much DU has been spread over what area? What about children, who in their minds run the highest risk of being exposed? The preliminary report doesn’t address those concerns. And according to the group, New York state has not been forthcoming with data and records that would assist it in getting answers.

In contrast, the state of Ohio informed residents of similar levels of exposure to DU contamination from NL’s Fernald Feed Materials Production Center, located 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati. The Fernald Plant, like NL’s plant in Colonie, was a government installation. Like the Colonie plant, the Fernald plant refined uranium and manufactured reactor fuel and targets between 1952 and 1989. Area residents formed a community watchdog group in 1962 to monitor the effects of the plant, and a subsequent investigation by the DOE revealed that 3.1 million pounds of uranium wastes had escaped faulty filtration systems and been released into the atmosphere. In 1984, the advocacy group filed a class-action lawsuit against NL and the U.S. Department of Energy. After an eight-member jury issued a nonbinding verdict awarding the Ohio plaintiffs $136 million in damages, the federal government settled for $73 million in 1989.

Locally, environmental advocates are working to put together a potential class-action lawsuit against NL’s operations at the Colonie plant. They hope to use the same New York environmental law firm that represented Fernald residents and plant employees in their suit against NL of Ohio.

Last August, the same time the ATSDR report was being released, Marcia Dingly was having brain surgery. Surgeons at Albany Medical were able to remove the portion of the brain tumor located closest to her pituitary gland, but further surgery is needed to remove the part of the tumor that causes her body to produce too much cortisol. For that, she will need an experimental “gamma-knife” radiosurgery procedure.

“My neurosurgeon said, ‘Marcia, if we don’t do this surgery now, you are not going to live very much longer,’” she says. “I thought I would be cured after the first brain surgery.”

Dingle thinks the extent of NL’s damage may take some work to track down, but that it’s worth doing. She expects there are those who have moved away many years ago that may have unexplained illnesses. “We need to go back and find all the families that were living by NL during its heyday like me,” she says, “and see how they are doing.”

Geraldean Hourigan is a science writer and graduate student in Earth Sciences at the University at Albany. Science journalist William Kanapaux contributed to this story.

*Correction: Originally states: "The DU levels in the surface soils are staggering, Arnason said, anywhere from 25 percent to 97 percent by soil weight. "

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