Public Release: 

EPA Superfund Site Study Evaluates Mercury Exposure At Turtle River, Brunswick, GA

Emory University Health Sciences Center

Former employees and retirees of Allied/LCP Chemical Plant in Brunswick, Georgia, 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 the current investigation, environmental health researchers from Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health and University of Georgia are collaborating with Glynn County Health Department to evaluate carefully the possible health consequences of mercury exposure such as neurologic and kidney toxicity. The Glynn County Health Department is coordinating recruitment activities, while the actual study and collection of health and exposure data will be carried our by researchers from Emory and UGA.

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 Jekyll Island Authority, Interstate Paper Corporation in Riceboro, and Glynn County.

"Because both groups are important for this study to be valid, we encourage both former LCP workers and employees and retirees of the participating companies to enroll," says Principal Investigator Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.Ph., chairman of Environmental and Occupational Health at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health. Members of these target groups are encouraged to call immediately to volunteer.

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. In June and July, study participants will visit the Health Department's local testing facility for their third and last series of tests. These tests will evaluate aspects 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," says B. Brooks Taylor, M.D., M.P.H., health director of Glynn County Health Department and a member of the research team. "Participants will have access to test results and may request results also be shared with their personal physicians. Otherwise, all test results and participation will be held in strict confidence, Dr. Taylor says. Participants also will receive a stipend at the conclusion of the study.

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.

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

Recruitment of former workers has begun and will continue through March 14. Information meetings will be held during the first week of march. Residents are encouraged to contact or provide information on former workers of the plant who no longer live in the local area and might not be award of the study.

For more information, call Marsha Pierce at the Glynn County Health Department, (912) 264-3961.

BACKGROUND Mercury Exposure Study -- Glynn County, Ga. THE SUPERFUND SITE

  • 550 acres, 90 percent marshland, adjacent to Turtle River, in Brunswick, Glynn County, Ga.
  • 1919-55 -- Site houses oil refinery, oil-fired power generating plant and paint manufacturing operation.
  • 1955 -- Allied Chemical purchases site and begins the next year producing chlorine, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid and hydrogen gas. Significant amounts of mercury released during production process.
  • 1979 -- Plant purchased by LCP Chemical-Georgia, a subsidiary of the Hanlin Group. Chemical production continues.
  • 1987 -- National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) performs air sampling in the plant and urinary mercury testing of workers at request of International Chemical Workers Union. Finds elevated air mercury levels and high creatinine levels in about half the patients, though no neurobehavioral symptoms.
  • 1988 -- Duke University performs follow-up study at request of plant management. Finds evidence of excessive mercury in air and in worker's urine. In addition to high urine creatinine levels, Duke researchers find tremor, proteinuria (indication of kidney toxicity) and gum disease in some workers.
  • Early 1990s -- Plant maintenance deteriorates. Community concern increases over possible health consequences related to plant contaminants. Environmental Protection Division of Georgia Department of Natural Resources closes several adjacent waterways to fishing. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) evaluates area at request of community leaders and warns residents against consuming fish caught in waterways near the site.
  • 1994 -- State revokes wastewater and air quality permits. Plant operations cease.
  • 1995 -- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adds site to Superfund list. Mercury, lead, barium, several species of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and volatile organic compounds are among contaminants discovered in soil and sediment samples.
  • March 1995 -- Large community meeting convened in Brunswick. Representatives of Glynn County Health Department, Georgia Division of Public Health, federal government (ATSDR) and Department of Environmental & Occupational Health in Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health meet with community members. Group agrees systematic health studies should focus on that group of residents at highest risk for lasting health effects of chemical exposure: former workers.
MERCURY FACTS
  • Mercury is a metal. Health risks vary depending upon the chemical form of mercury to which one is exposed. Mercury may be characterized as elemental, inorganic or organic. Short-chain alkyls, long-chain alkyls and aryl mercury are all forms of organic mercury. Exposure of LCP Plant workers to excessive levels of elemental and organic mercury has been cause for concern.
  • Neurotoxins including elemental and organic mercury may impair the central nervous system and cause loss of memory, coordination or motor speed; fatigue, confusion, depression, personality disorders or other behavioral changes; or peripheral nerve dysfunction associated with tremor or sensory loss.
  • Mercury also is a renal toxicant which inhibits the kidneys' ability to filter and eliminate waste, including toxic substances. Scientists believe damage occurs at the cellular level. Excretion of certain proteins and other substances, particularly porphyrins, in mercury-exposed persons is providing clues to the type and amount of kidney damage incurred. The current study will seek to determine whether porphyrin excretion patterns can serve as a biomarker of mercury exposure.
  • The effects of chronic mercury exposure on the reproductive system are less well known. A form of the metal known as methylmercury has been associated with neurological damage to children exposed in utero during chemical accidents and has been shown to affect physical and behavioral development of animals exposed in utero. Among the few studies examining occupational mercury exposure, one found menstrual abnormalities among female workers though no birth defects or pregnancy losses.

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