Missouri officials say tannery sludge did not cause brain tumors

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | 7:52 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Health and environmental officials have concluded that sludge from a St. Joseph, Mo., tannery did not contain enough of a cancer-causing chemical to cause health problems in areas where the sludge was used to fertilize farmland.

Though hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen, it has not been associated with brain tumors such as several that have turned up in northwest Missouri, said Scott Clardy, an administrator with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

"The sludge did not cause brain tumors," Clardy said Wednesday at a news conference at the federal Environmental Protection Agency office in Kansas City, Kan.

Hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, was detected in five of eight soil samples collected since April in three counties where the sludge was applied, but not at levels that posed a danger to human health, Clardy said.

Levels ranged from 20 to 49 parts per million, far below the 86 parts per million "screening level" that would warrant closer investigation, he said.

Efforts began last summer to identify the cause of a rash of brain tumors diagnosed in the Cameron, Mo., area in recent years. A lawsuit was filed in April on behalf of two area residents against Prime Tanning Co., which had been giving away sludge to farmers in four northwest Missouri counties since 1983.

The lawsuit alleges that sludge from the tannery contained high levels of hexavalent chromium — the same carcinogen that led to a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas & Energy in 1996 for exposing a California town to the chemical. That case was the focus of the movie "Erin Brockovich," about a woman who fought the utility and helped win the settlement.

Brockovich appeared at a public meeting in Cameron to announce the lawsuit and discuss the dangers of hexavalent chromium. Bob Bowcock, an environmental investigator from Claremont, Calif., who worked with Brockovich on the PG&E case, also attended the meeting.

"I'm encouraged by the results," Bowcock said Wednesday. "Basically the federal government and state government, from April to July 1, were looking for a needle in a haystack and found five of eight."

He said there was no safe level of exposure to hexavalent chromium, despite what state and federal officials said.

Mark Templeton, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said the agency does not consider the cases in DeKalb County — which includes the town of Cameron — a so-called cancer cluster. He said additional soil and water testing was planned this month in Buchanan, Andrew, Clinton and DeKalb counties because of the chromium levels found there, but he was confident there was no health risk.

Rep. Jim Guest, a King City Republican and longtime farmer, said the agencies' findings weren't surprising. He noted that workers at the plant, who would have been exposed to much higher levels of hexavalent chromium than area farmers or residents, did not get sick.

He disagreed with the DNR's contention that there was no cancer cluster in his district and expressed frustration that the cause of the brain tumors had not been determined.

"I guess you're relieved that it's not because farmers applied stuff to their land that they accepted free of charge without any thoughts of danger," he said.

Keith Welty, vice president of marketing for National Beef Co., which bought Prime Tanning in March and renamed it National Beef Leathers, declined to comment on the findings because the company is named in the lawsuit. He noted, however, that the company stopped giving farms the sludge in April.


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