Report: Lead levels above average in Palmerton
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry indicates air lead levels near the American Zinc Recycling facility in Palmerton could result in health problems for young children and pregnant women.
In 2017, the United States Environmental Protection Agency requested ATSDR conduct a public health evaluation of the community’s current exposures to lead in the air near the plant, formerly Horsehead, on the east side of town.
“Based on our preliminary spatial analysis of EPA’s air modeling results and available state monitoring data, ATSDR concludes that a public health hazard is likely for young children and/or pregnant women living within 3 miles of the American Zinc Recycling facility,” Dr. Karl Markiewicz, senior toxicologist, wrote in a report released July 31. “Young children and/or pregnant women could experience long-term health problems from exposure to lead in the outdoor air.”
Markiewicz first looked at the National Ambient Air Quality Standard lead monitor in Palmerton, which has been operating since May 2012.
The levels detected at the Palmerton NAAQS monitor exceeded the three-month rolling average of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which is the national standard, one time over the 2013-15 monitoring period.
The EPA, however, conducted air modeling using AERMOD Model 3 and came away with differing, more concerning, results.
The AERMOD shows the highest estimated monthly average lead concentration at 0.268 micrograms per cubic meter of air and the highest estimated rolling three month average lead concentration at 0.244 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
“Air modeling suggests that higher concentrations of lead than those measured at the existing air monitoring station are possible in the Palmerton community,” Markiewicz wrote. “This modeling information suggests that the current NAAQS monitor may be located outside the maximum deposition area.”
Highlighting Markiewicz’s recommendations following the report are avoiding additional exposure to lead, and getting children tested annually. He also suggested using wet cleaning methods in the home and disposing of cleaning cloths after use, using HEPA filters for air conditioning, having children wash hands before eating if they have been playing outside and getting children plenty of calcium if they have high lead levels in the blood.
Approximately 850 people live within one mile of the American Zinc Recycling site, while the population of the entire town of Palmerton is approximately 5,000. AZR operates four horizontal kilns that heat electric-arc furnace dust to high temperatures, volatilizing metals for recovery as co-products and products. Due to the chemical composition of EAF dust and combustion reactions, Markiewicz said, each kiln emits criteria pollutants and heavy metals, including lead, zinc, nickel, cadmium and chromium.
Asked what the report means for Palmerton, Borough Manager Roger Danielson said that is yet to be determined.
“I do expect a follow-up and possibly a public information session,” Danielson said.
“Hopefully that would spell things out a little more. The Department of Health is concerned and the community should be mindful of what is in that report. Parents need to be vigilant to make sure their children are tested for lead levels.”
According to Markiewicz, the developing nervous system in children is among the most sensitive health endpoints associated with lead exposure.
Pregnant women at risk
“Pregnant women may have a higher risk for miscarriage,” the report continued. “The unborn baby may have a higher risk for premature birth, low birth weight, learning and behavior problems, and damage to their developing brains.”
ATSDR notes that the rates of elevated blood lead levels in children living in Carbon County are similar to statewide rates. However, due to the small numbers of children involved, specific rates for Palmerton are not available to determine whether blood lead levels in children are unusually high in the immediate area near the American Zinc Recycling facility.
American Zinc Recycling officials did not respond to a request for comment.
When contacted for comment, the EPA sent a prepared statement regarding what the agency plans to do with the report that it commissioned.
“In January 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency, Region 3 requested that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conduct a public health evaluation in Palmerton, Pa., near the American Zinc Recycling Corp. (AZR) facility, to gain a better understanding of potential exposures from lead in the air,” said EPA spokesperson Terri A. White. “Since 2012, the air near the AZR facility has been monitored for the national ambient air quality standard for lead. With the release of ATSDR’s public health evaluation, EPA is working collaboratively with Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to assess ATSDR’s findings and recommendations, and to develop a path forward that protects public health and the environment.”