Fiber plant all but ruled out in tumor probe

Friday, August 22, 2008 | 2:05 p.m. CDT; updated 10:43 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 16, 2008

CAMERON - Officials say soil samples taken from around an old insulation fiber plant in northwest Missouri revealed elevated amounts of arsenic and lead — but not at hazardous levels.

About 250 people heard officials with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the federal Environmental Protection Agency discuss the findings at a public meeting in Cameron on Thursday night. Soil samples around the former Rockwool Industries plant were tested as part of an investigation into the numbers of brain tumors in Cameron.

Officials said that through mid-August, 68 people had returned survey forms reporting an instance of tumors in the brain or central nervous system.

If verified cases make up a so-called cancer cluster, further investigation will be conducted to determine if the cases are linked. Officials have scheduled another meeting next month, hoping to provide a statistical analysis of the tumor cases.

"We want to know if there is any pattern or any common cause," John Askew, regional EPA director in Kansas City, told the audience. "These are your questions, and believe me, these are our questions."

Some of the residents at the meeting expressed frustration that officials didn't have more answers. But officials said they don't know what causes brain tumors in many cases.

The soil samples taken near the plant three miles west of Cameron showed arsenic and lead levels above screening levels the EPA uses to determine potential health risks. But state and federal officials nearly ruled out that site as being connected to the tumors.

"Screening levels are set very low to ensure that they are health protective," the Department of Natural Resources said, adding that elevated levels means more evaluation is needed, not that there's necessarily a health risk.

The Department of Natural Resources said officials "found that even if a worker was on site over a 25-year working lifetime, the concentrations of lead and arsenic were low enough that no adverse health effects would be expected."

Groundwater samples in the area also showed high levels of arsenic, lead and other metals, but only in pockets isolated from drinking water.

The Rockwool plant, which closed more than 20 years ago, turned iron into fiber insulation for buildings. The city later leased the site to a coat hanger manufacturer from 1992 to 2003.

Before closing, the plant dumped iron product residue on land next to the plant as well as into a quarry three miles away. Officials said tests at the quarry showed no dangerous contaminants and there have been no allegations of illegal dumping.

The Rockwool site is connected to Cameron through its water system. The Department of Natural Resources tested the city's reservoir and drinking water in May, determining they met healthy standards.

The site is now being used as a distribution center for Sukup Manufacturing Co., which makes construction materials for silos and other buildings.



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