Scientist's Study Calls Superfund Remedy Into Question

Read Dr. McDermott’s complete study here.

McDermott Study.jpg

Last week Dr. Suzanne McDermott visited Butte to talk about her research into health outcomes around our Superfund site. Suzanne comes to us from South Carolina, where she is a professor in the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at the Arnold School of Public Health. She is also the Director of the Disability Research and Dissemination Center, part of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. I had a chance to go to her talk at Montana Tech on Thursday and to visit with her about out what she’s been finding in Butte.
Suzanne is an expert on many aspects of public health, she has published more than a hundred papers on topics ranging from Attitudes Toward Medication Use by Pregnant Women to the associations of low birth weight and developmental disabilities. Most of her work has focused on pregnant women and children, and she has extensively studied health outcomes for women and children exposed to metals in soil.
Here's Suzanne:
SM: “For about ten years I had NIH, National Institute of Environmental Health Science research money to study Superfund sites in South Carolina. And our focus was entirely on birth outcomes. We were very interested in the nine month period of pregnancy and what mothers were exposed to, and then the follow up of how their children progressed.”
These studies used retrospective data from Medicaid to follow thousands of mother-child pairs, along with soil sampling for metal concentrations, and analyzed the associated health outcomes. Many of these studies are very relevant to Butte, looking at Superfund sites, and many of the same contaminants of concern such as arsenic and lead. And Suzanne has a tie to Butte, her son and his family live here, so she naturally began to wonder about our Superfund site.
SM: “I started to look up some of the facts and figures and reports about Butte Montana. I saw lots of information, not all of it had to do with health outcomes. There’s a lot of work around exposures, but not so much linked to the health outcomes. So I thought that’s something that I would take on.”
And that led to an unfunded study on mortality rates in Silverbow and Deerlodge counties. She, and her team, used publicly available data from the CDC to compare various health outcomes to the rest of the state. They looked at cause of deaths for individuals from 2000 to 2016 and calculated adjusted mortality ratios, essentially the observed versus the expected mortality, for us compared to the rest of the state.
They started with a list of metals typically found here, then selected causes of death associated with those metals. And what they found, is that cancers, cerebro- and cardiovascular diseases, and organ failure were elevated for our two counties. Cancer mortality was 19% higher, cerebro- and cardiovascular diseases were 36% higher, and organ failure was 24% higher. These are averages, her work broke it down by age and sex, as well.
Their study was recently published in the journal Environmental Geochemistry and Health. The paper is titled "Population-based mortality data suggests remediation is modestly effective in two Montana Superfund counties," and as the title notes, they did observe a downward trend in these rates. Suzanne spoke to this at her talk.
SM: “The remediation is having an effect, is that a good enough effect, are you happy with that effect, is that enough? I can’t answer that question. That is what it is, you know, that’s what we are observing.”
One line in the paper puts it this way: “Our study suggests that while remediation is conveying some reduction in negative health consequences, these efforts have not protected the residents of these two counties as a whole, and further remediation is required to protect human health."
And this is, of course, very troubling to the community, especially when we have been told repeatedly by local, state, and federal health officials that we do not have elevated risks, that the remediation is effective at protecting health, and that our mortality rates are similar to those of the rest of the state. Suzanne noted there are different ways to interpret the data.
SM: “There’s many approaches to these things, and I’m an epidemiologist and I look at big data sets, and churn the data, and try to make associations. I don’t go in hoping it’s going to be bad news, I go in hoping it will be good news, and I did that here, too. So, it is what it is. I think that what I support for your community is good science, and the people here in this room are part of that.”

Many in the audience at Dr. McDermott’s talk wanted to know if it is safe to live here and what we can do. She resisted giving her opinions, instead she encouraged further study with an evidence based approach.
SM: “It’s all about the question, ask the right question. Don’t spend all of this time and energy figuring out how you’re going to analyze something, first find the really important question. Knowing the literature, knowing what’s out there, and saying from all that I’ve learned from the literature, all that I’ve learned from my teachers, all that I’ve learned from the readings I’ve done, what’s the next important question. And once you have that, it’s a breeze to figure out how to analyze it, how to design a study. It might cost money, it might take time and it might take effort. We just have to engage people at the EPA, but a lot of this can be done without them and presented to them. So, that’s my pitch.”

Hopefully, Suzanne’s work here will continue, she mentioned a pilot study she is developing with Dr. Katie Hailer at Montana Tech. Dr. Hailer recently published a study on metals exposure here in Butte and has shown elevated levels of some metals in people’s hair and blood. With these findings coming to light, and multiple health monitoring studies in progress, there is reason for hope that the community’s health concerns are finally being addressed. Suzanne left her audience with this recommendation:
SM: “You have a lot of community groups that are advocates, and you don’t have to tell them what the answer is, you have to tell them what the question is. You have to challenge them to use the most up to date, evidence-based approaches to solve these problems, to answer these questions. That’s really my take-home point.”
So stay engaged and informed, and stay tuned as I report back on this story as it unfolds.

I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF