Washington, DC — A new government health assessment finds heightened risks of lung cancer from exposure to airborne chromium in the Jersey suburbs of the New York metropolitan area. The report confirms long-standing but ignored warnings about serious health threats to populations surrounding scores of contaminated sites, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The new assessment, undertaken by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Division of Science, Research and Technology under a Cooperative Agreement with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, looks at 25 years of lung cancer incidence data in Jersey City, located in Hudson County, a major center for chromium ore processing and manufacturing sites in the 1950s and 1960s. More than 160 chromium disposal sites have been identified in Hudson County (136 in Jersey City), where chromium was routinely used as fill material in residential and commercial buildings.
The sites contain varying levels of hexavalent chromium, the most toxic form and a known cause of lung cancer in humans. The assessment conclusions include –
• An “increased risk of lung cancer incidence was found for populations living in close proximity to historic [chromium disposal] sites…The results suggest that living closer to [chromium] sites is a potential risk factor for the development of lung cancer”;
• It is “recommended that efforts to remediate …sites to limit human exposure to hexavalent chromium should continue” and
• The report only looked at airborne exposure pathways. Hexavalent chromium “in drinking water provided evidence of an increased risk of stomach cancer …Therefore, the [state health agency] should consider replicating this investigation’s design of lung cancer and residential proximity …for an evaluation of stomach, small intestine and oral cancer incidence in Jersey City.”
The assessment assumes that exposure has been eliminated in cleaned-up or “remediated” sites but DEP’s own specialists have been warning that harmful chromium is still migrating off remediated sites and likely coming into contact with residents and workers. In 2004, state scientists found state clean-up standards were deficient and significantly underestimated the health risks at chromium sites placed under “caps.”
“New Jersey has slept through several chromium public health alarms and shows no signs of waking up now,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization petitioned U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 to intervene because of the breakdown in state clean-up standards. “In fact, New Jersey is making it more difficult to ensure that its toxic sites are safe before they are re-occupied.”
PEER points to three major developments that further undermine safe and reliable toxic clean-ups –
- The state DEP is further de-regulating clean-ups and allowing the polluter to determine what type of “cap” or other remedial action is appropriate, without community notice or input, and with no requirement for removal or other permanent remedies;
- DEP is dismantling the Division of Science, Research and Technology, which conducted the new assessment, thus further diminishing the likelihood of any future scientific assessments of toxic clean-up effectiveness; and
- The state is moving to completely privatize toxic clean-ups by licensing private sector consultants to replace state employees in overseeing remediation of contaminated sites.
“New Jersey is engaged in a dogged race to the bottom of pollution protections,” Ruch added. “The state once had a model program which is now only a model of what to avoid.”