Health impact of Animas River toxic spill: ‘This is a real mess’

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While the mustard-yellow hue of the Animas River is fading, leading toxicologists say there could be health effects for many years to come from heavy metals such as lead and mercury that spilled into the water.

“This is a real mess,” said Max Costa, chair of the department of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine. “These levels are shocking.”

Exposure to high levels of these metals can cause an array of health problems from cancer to kidney disease to developmental problems in children.

“Oh my God! Look at the lead!” said Joseph Landolph, a toxicologist at the University of Southern California, pointing to a lead level in the Animas River nearly 12,000 times higher than the acceptable level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to sampling done by the EPA on various points along the Animas River Wednesday and Thursday last week, levels of lead, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and mercury were extremely high compared with acceptable levels set by the agency, which are technically called “maximum contaminant levels” or “action levels for treatment.”

One of the samples of mercury was nearly 10 times higher than the EPA acceptable levels. Samples of beryllium and cadmium were 33 times higher, and one of the arsenic levels was more than 800 times higher.

‘A major, major problem’

“This is a major, major problem,” said Jonathan Freedman, a toxicologist at the University of Louisville, who until recently worked as an investigator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health.

Typically it takes years or even decades for health problems from metals to develop.

Spokespersons for the EPA did not respond to emails Monday regarding the levels.

The mayor of Durango, Colorado, said experts from the agency were “noncommittal” about the health effects of the contamination during a community meeting Sunday night.

“There was no good discussion of what these levels mean, and that’s what’s frustrating. I’m a fairly smart guy, and I walked away without having answers,” said Dean Brookie. “It wasn’t a great confidence builder.”

According to the EPA, Wednesday’s spill caused a spike in these metal concentrations, but levels “began to return to pre-event conditions” by Thursday.

However, according to the EPA’s own data, there were still very high levels of metals on Thursday. A lead sample was more than 300 times higher than the EPA acceptable level, for example, and an arsenic sample tested 26 times the acceptable level.

EPA spokespersons did not respond to emails Monday asking how many residents rely on the Animas River for their drinking water and how many farms use the water for irrigation.

Cadmium is a particular concern for crops, Costa said, as it’s readily absorbed.

“Of all the toxic metals, it goes into plants like crazy,” he said.

It’s also not clear what the levels of these metals would have been once they reached the input point for drinking water systems and whether the systems cut off their connection to the river water in time to avoid the contaminants.

One thing, however, is for sure: these metals don’t disappear. Even if they go down to low levels in the water, they could likely be in the sediment and could be kicked up into the water at any time.

“This was such a horrible accident,” Landolph said. “I served on the EPA scientific advisory board, and I have the utmost respect for the agency. I wish them godspeed in cleaning it up and containing it.”