Correction: Aroclor 1268, a chemical of local concern in the Brunswick area, was used at what is now the LCP Chemicals Superfund site. It was not manufactured there. A previous version of this article misstated the chemical’s connection to the site.
Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker grew up in public housing just a block away from the Pinova/Hercules chemical plant in Brunswick, he told community members who gathered Tuesday to hear preliminary results of a study of chemical exposure in the area, which is home to four Superfund sites.
“This was not something far off for me. This was personal, like it is for many of you,” he said. “And I participated in the study. And so it was an eye opener.”
The study results showed that blood levels of several chemicals known to have polluted the local environment were higher in study participants than in the average American. Among them were certain polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, and components of the pesticide toxaphene. Both sets of chemicals were produced at nearby factories and the production of both was banned decades ago.
Noah Scovronick, assistant professor in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and a co-leader of the study said one question from the local community was driving the work:
“What does it mean to live and to grow up and to raise their families near these sites? Are they affecting people’s exposure to hazardous chemicals?”
The average age of the 100 participants, all adults, was 60 years. About two-thirds were women and a little less than half, 46, were Black. Importantly, they were all long-term residents, having lived there an average of 47 years.
The researchers invited the public to the meeting after first informing the participants of their individual results confidentially in writing. Some of the 150 or so people who filled the community center at Howard Coffin Park identified themselves as study participants.
Researchers analyzed the blood samples for contaminants including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and PCBs, including unique PCBs used at what is now the LCP Chemicals Superfund site, which is managed by Honeywell International Inc. They also tested pesticides that have been banned but persist in the environment, including a component of DDT and of toxaphene, which was also once produced at Hercules. Finally, they tested for PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, so called “forever chemicals” used in a variety of products including fire-fighting foam.
The most striking finding came in the PCBs. The study tested for seven different PCBs, including four found commonly in the U.S. population. The other three are part of a brand name chemical called Aroclor 1268, one of the pollutants of local concern used at what is now the LCP Chemicals Superfund site.
“(PCBS) are man made chemicals that were used in electrical equipment like capacitors and transformers, as well as in things like hydraulic fluids, heat transfer, fluid, lubricants, and plasticizers,” Scovronick said. ” … PCBs may affect the immune, reproductive, hormone and nervous systems, and there have been links with cancer.”
Study participants had lower levels of the common PCBs — PCB 118, PCB 138, PCB 152 and PCB 180 — than the average American. But they had higher levels of PCBs that are components of the locally produced Aroclor 168. For PCB 206, which makes up the largest percentage of Aroclor 1268, the study average of 50 parts per trillion was more than twice the American average of 18 parts per trillion. Additionally, about 40% of the participants tested at very high levels, above that seen in 95 percent of the U.S. population.
Average toxaphene levels were also higher in study participants than in the average Canadian, but not dramatically higher. However, about a quarter of the study participants did have very high levels, above that seen in 95 percent of the Canadians studied. Scovronick cautioned toxaphene exposure is not well studied, making the results more difficult to interpret. The comparison to Canadian averages was necessary because the only available study on toxaphene levels was done in Canada.
Study participants had about the same blood levels of two of three metals tested — lead, and mercury — as the average American. Cadmium levels were a little higher in the study participants, but some participants smoked cigarettes, a known source of cadium exposure, so “it’s not something that at this point has set off alarm bells for us,” Scovronick said.
The researchers also tested 25 samples for PFAS, adding this test after realizing that a study done of Sapelo Islanders showed high levels of PFAS and also because local fires have been put out with firefighting foam, which contains the chemical. Because each test requires a certain volume of blood, only 25 of the participants had enough of a sample remaining to complete this test. Levels were about the same as in the average American, though two samples tested very high.
Booker, the executive director of Rebuilding Together of Glynn County, helped get the ball rolling on the study by partnering with other community groups to hear residents’ concerns about living in a county with a long legacy of industrial pollution.
Along with the four Superfund sites, the county also has 16 other toxic waste sites, Booker said.
Like Booker, other residents have seen family members die from cancer and pulmonary diseases and wondered if chemical contamination was the cause and if they were at risk, too.
The study, funded through a pilot grant from Emory University’s NIH-supported Exposome Research Center, has not yet been peer reviewed, though the researchers expect to go through that process over the next 12-18 months. Scovronick also listed a number of study caveats at the outset of the public meeting.
The study cannot answer when or how an exposure occurred, or what exactly the exposure means for a person’s health, Scovronick explained.
“So even if somebody tests high for a particular chemical, we can’t tell you whether it was because you ate seafood, or whether it was because you worked at one of these sites or whether there was some other way you may have been exposed,” he said. “And the other thing is that we did not collect information on health impacts on any diseases that people may be experiencing. The study is not about whether the exposures are actually causing health problems.”
Next steps include Emory University doctors organizing webinars for healthcare providers in Brunswick. Attendees can learn about how they should be thinking about their patients who may be exposed to some of these chemicals.
The nonprofit Coastal Community Health is already well versed in these issues and has opened a clinic in downtown Brunswick, convenient for many of those who partipated in the study, said CEO Dr. Kavanaugh Chandler, who emphasized the importance of affordable healthcare.
“Let’s just say hypothetically you were exposed,” he said. “Your lifespan could be extended if you just got basic care.”
Along with Coastal Community Health and Rebuilding Together of Glynn County, other community groups involved in the study include the Environmental Justice Advisory Board, One Hundred Miles, Glynn Environmental Coalition, UGA Marine Extension, Coastal Equity and Resilience Hub and the Community First Planning Commission.
Community groups are already working to reduce exposures to pollutants through education, including seafood advisories which note the types and locations of Glynn County fish and shellfish most likely to be contaminated as well as how much is safe to eat.
The Emory researchers intend to expand the study and are preparing to seek funding.
“If we did a complete study on 500 people that looked at these and other exposures and included health outcomes, and in depth questionnaires it would cost in the ballpark of a $1 million or more,” Scovronick said.
That’s exactly what study participants like Anita Collins want to see.
“I participated in this because it needs to be done and there needs to be more where you have a larger number of people, because so many of us we grew up right there by Hercules,” she said.