Scientists with the University of Arizona's Metals Exposure Study in Homes say they are "making progress" in their efforts to study environmental effects of seven potentially toxic metals from the Iron King Mine and Smelter in Dewey-Humboldt with children's health. Nevertheless, they are looking for 76 more families to take part in the study.
The research involves collecting samples of soil; settled dust and water from homes; and urine and nail samples of children ages 1-11. An option for children is blood samples taken at a lab in Prescott Valley to check for lead levels, but parents who do not want their children's blood sampled may still participate in the study, said Miranda Loh, MESH investigator.
"We're trying to analyze the content of samples to see if there is a relationship between the environment and blood samples," Loh said. "We're targeting 100 households between the smelter location out about three miles from there."
So far, field technicians have met with and collected samples from about 24 households, said Nathan Lothrop, MESH program coordinator and research specialist. About a third of those households live within a mile of the Iron King Mine site, and two-thirds live between one and three miles.
"The small population is a challenge, as well as what residents there are, are retirees or people without children," Lothrop added.
Participation in the study is free, and if blood lead levels or metals in water or soil exceed federal standards, the researchers notify the parents.
"It's an easy study to participate in," said Kim Nathe, one of four field technicians who have been canvassing neighborhoods to identify willing participants. "We're really nice people. All it takes is a few hours of their time, and they get to know the actual levels in their soil and water. You'd think a lot of people would want to know it," Nathe said.
The field techs deliver a binder with all the information about the study in the first of two visits to the home. The techs set up "dust fall" cans to collect the dust in the house for a week's time. They give the parents a questionnaire to track the child's activities and food consumption for four days prior to taking samples of toenail clippings and urine. The blood sample is optional.
A week later, the techs return and go over a second questionnaire about general household practices - do family members remove their shoes inside the home, for example, and do they have carpet or tile flooring - and a third questionnaire about the child's health history, one questionnaire for each child taking part in the study. The techs collect the dust fall cans, urine and nail samples, and take two soil samples from each side of house. They also vacuum a small 3' x 5' area inside the home for about five minutes to collect more dust, and a sample from the home's drinking water supply, usually at the kitchen tap.
Loh said if a child's blood test shows lead levels above the recommended level, the lab in Prescott Valley contacts the Arizona Department of Health Services, which, in turn, notifies the family and the scientists.
If water or soil samples test high, "we get the results to them as soon as we reasonably can," Loh said. They do not report test results back to families if the levels are within normal parameters. Since the study involves biological samples from the children, the parents sign an informed consent that explains that all information is kept private, Nathe said. Even the participating houses have a code number.
When asked how many of the 24 homes had arsenic or lead levels that exceeded Maximum Contamination Levels, or how many children had high blood lead levels, Lothrop declined to answer.
"We're still processing samples to analyze, so we have nothing to communicate at this time. We want to make sure everything is okay with the results. We have to calculate everything first," Loh said.
A public meeting earlier in the year, mailings and flyers have notified residents of the research project, but some are either still unaware of the study or are unwilling to participate.
Lothrop said some residents might think they are no longer looking for participants, but he is hoping to obtain samples from a total of 100 homes. The more people who are involved, the more certainty will come out of the study's results, he explained.
Nathe, and at least one other field tech, live within the three-mile radius of the Superfund site. She also had her water and soil tested through another U of A research project called GardenRoots. Both showed high levels of arsenic, and she and her husband do not drink or cook with tap water.
"This study is an opportunity to get it tested without putting out money," she said. "(Residents) get to know the actual levels in soil and water. You'd think a lot of people would want to know it."
Anyone living within three miles of the Superfund site, which encompasses the Iron King Mine and some surrounding property on the west side of Highway 69, and the smelter site in Humboldt on the east side of Highway 69, is welcome to contact Lothrop and Loh at this toll-free number, 877-535-6171. They also plan another community meeting in November or December.