Toenails will measure toxic exposure in the small town of Garfield, New Jersey. The chemical they will be looking for is hexavalent chromium, a metal used in industrial production.
The metal is considered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to be a “well-established carcinogen.” The chromium plume has spread under the town, putting about one-tenth of the city’s homes — and 3,600 residents — at risk.
Officials say that the hexavalent chromium comes from a spill site. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon drill on the spill site to determine how much of the carcinogenic metal is pooled under the city. They will then work to remove tainted soil.
Meanwhile, a group of scientists will also look to see how much chromium residents of Garfield may have been exposed to. They chose to use toenail clippings to measure toxic exposure because they grow slowly. They will be able to see how much chromium has accumulated in the body in the past 18 months.
Judith Zelikoff, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University, added, “Our major goal is to try to relieve their fears. With the economy, they can’t sell their homes. They don’t know if they got exposed.”
The contamination in Garfield began 30 years ago when the chromium leaked from a tank at the EC Electroplating Co. The factory was surrounded by houses and apartments. While New Jersey began cleaning the spill up immediately, it stopped just two years later.
The next news about Garfield’s chromium spill came in 1993 when the toxic chemical was found at a now-closed down firehouse. Later on it was also discovered in homes near the plant. The EPA decided to designate the area as a Superfund site — meaning it is one of the nation’s most toxic uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
Officials cautioned residents in 2011 to keep out of their basements as much as possible to prevent more exposure. While EPA officials demolished the old factory and removed the chromium in 2012, they found that some of the tanks had holes in them. The tanks likely released even more chromium into the groundwater.
EPA officials estimate that the chromium plume is about three-quarters of a mile wide by slightly more than an eighth of a mile long. Along with affecting Garfield, the plume has also traveled under the Passaic River into the city of Passaic. The EPA installed monitoring wells to see how far the toxic metal has spread.
The research study on toenails will be done in conjunction with the city of Garfield. Zelikoff hopes that she and her team can test up to 250 residents. They are asking for volunteers between 18 and 65 years of age who have lived in Garfield for more than two years. They may not be taking chromium supplements and they cannot be smokers.
When they sign up for the test, they will receive a kit with stainless steel toenail clippers, instructions on how to clip the nails, and an envelope for them to send in the clippings. It will likely take weeks to know the results. Zelikoff added that many of the town’s residents are immigrants. Some of them do not know about the contamination.
It is not clear how long it will take to completely clean up the hexavalent chromium spill. It is also not known the impact of the toenail study to measure toxic exposure.
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