WAIT CONTINUES IN RAVENA MERCURY STUDY

State review slows release of individual results of blood tests from people near the Lafarge plant

BRIAN NEARING STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Saturday, June 11, 2011

RAVENA -- It's been over a year since more than 170 people worried about toxic mercury pollution around the Lafarge cement plant gave blood and hair samples for testing by researchers from Harvard University.


And it's been almost six months since the university's School of Public Health research revealed in January that one person in 10 tested had mercury levels high enough to warrant a visit to a doctor. But no one still knows individual test results.


The results are in the possession of the state Department of Health as part of its Heavy Metals Registry. Laws controlling it require health officials to inform a person with test results indicating excessive mercury.


"We have the data and are reviewing it now," said Jeffrey Hammond, a health department spokesman who declined further comment about when the review might be complete.


Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause developmental problems in children and fetuses. The metal can pass from pregnant women to their fetuses.


Harvard is barred by state law from providing results directly to study subjects, said Dr. John Spengler, professor of environmental health and human habitation. He said the university used a New York state-certified lab to meet state rules, and provided individual study results to the state metals registry several weeks ago and further information last week.


While unable to discuss individual results, Spengler said no one with elevated blood mercury levels that must be reported by the state back to the subject -- a level of 5 parts per billion or more -- had levels elevated enough to indicate immediate or potentially serious health problems.


Once reports like the Harvard study are received by the metals registry, the Department of Health is legally required to "conduct interviews to determine the source of exposure" for people with elevated levels, according to the department website.


The state must inform those people of tests results, and when it appears that "family members (especially children) may be exposed, recommendations are made for reducing exposure and the local health department is contacted, if applicable."


The study was initiated and financially supported by a grass-roots advocacy group, Community Advocates for Safe Emissions, which has been pushing for tougher controls on mercury pollution from the Lafarge plant. It is located across Route 9W from the middle school and high school.


"We certainly hope that the state informs people of their results in a timely fashion," said CASE co-founder Elyse Kunz. "I wonder why the health department has not acted more quickly on this from the beginning. People deserve to know their test results."


Kunz said New York is unique among states in having a law that prevents academic research organization, like Harvard, from sharing test results with subjects.


"Perhaps this law was meant to keep sham organizations from abusing people, but here the state is using the law to inhibit the release of information from is clearly not a sham organization. We don't fault Harvard at all for how long this is taking."


Reach Nearing at 454-5094 or bnearing@timesunion.com.