Public Health researchers

to examine mercury exposure

Former employees and retirees of Allied/LCP Chemical Plant in Brunswick, Ga., are being recruited for a study of mercury exposure funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a federal agency concerned with the health of people exposed to toxic substances in the environment and the workplace.

The study comes in response to community concern about possible long-term health effects to former workers of the plant from exposure to chemicals used in the chloralkali production process. Plant operations ceased in 1994, when the state of Georgia revoked wastewater and air quality permits. The 550-acre plant site, located next to the Turtle River, was added in 1995 to the Environmental Protection Agency's list of Superfund hazardous waste sites and, prior to clean-up beginning, was probably the most contaminated site in Georgia and one of the worst in the nation. In addition to mercury, lead, barium, several species of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and volatile organic compounds were among the contaminants found in soil and sediment samples.

In the current investigation, environmental health researchers from Emory and the University of Georgia led by principal investigator Howard Frumkin, chairman of Environmental and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health, are collaborating with the Glynn County Health Department to evaluate carefully the possible health consequences of mercury exposure such as kidney toxicity. Mercury, may, impair the central nervous system and cause loss of memory, coordination or motor speed, fatigue, confusion, depression, personlaity disorders or other behavioral changes.

Beginning in May, the team will conduct extensive medical tests on former LCP employees and will compare findings with results of the same tests conducted on a group of Glynn County volunteers who did not work at LCP and were presumably unexposed to mercury. These comparison group volunteers will be recruited from employers who have agreed to participate, including the Jekyll Island Authority, Interstate Paper Corporation in Riceboro, Ga., and Glynn County.

Study participation will involve three visits during May and early summer to Glynn County Health Department local testing facilities.

During the first two visits, researchers will collect blood and urine samples to evaluate mercury exposure. Later, study participants will visit the health department's local testing facility for a series of evaluations of neurologic functioning such as coordination, concentration, attention, memory, body sway and strength.

"In addition to receiving free, sophisticated medical testing, study participants will also be contributing to the body of medical knowledge on the health effects of mercury exposure," said B. Brooks Taylor, health director of the Glynn County Health Department and a member of the research team.

Scientific aims of the study include better characterization of how long-term exposure to mercury adversely affects the nervous system, kidney function and the reproductive system.

The Glynn County Health Department is coordinating recruitment activities, while the actual study and collection of health and exposure data will be carried out by researchers from Emory and UGA.

"We hope this study will serve as a model of responsive collaboration among a community, a local health department, a state health department and research universities," said Frumkin.

-Lorri Preston

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