Half-Life to Live
neurosurgeon said, Marcia, if we dont
do this surgery now, you are not going to live very
National Leads production of depleted uranium shells
has left the Capital Region with a toxic legacyand angry
neighbors who want explanations for their deteriorating health
Photographs by Shannon DeCelle
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the building was the creek. We swam back there. We
drank back there. We did everything back there.
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.*
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?”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
as for the overall conclusions, Treffiletti says, “The health
call will not change.”
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,”
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
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.
point of contention between government sources and local
activists is the amount of time that DU particles would
exist in a person’s lungs.
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.
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.”
committee also wants a more comprehensive cleanup of the
site than what has been promised, and financial compensation
for victims with related health problems.
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.
attitude at the time, was not to take samples or keep
records because it would incriminate them later.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
recalls men walking around her neighborhood at night in
hazmat suits using Geiger counters. “Nobody told the community
anything,” she says.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Hourigan is a science writer and graduate student in Earth
Sciences at the University at Albany. Science journalist
William Kanapaux contributed to this story.
Originally states: "The DU
levels in the surface soils are staggering, Arnason said,
anywhere from 25 percent to 97 percent by soil weight.