Complaints triggered study
By Neita Cecil
The first-ever state air quality testing now being done to evaluate naphthalene emissions from the AmeriTies tie plant was triggered by a group of complaints in early 2015.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s odor nuisance strategy was triggered on Feb. 1 last year when 10 complaints, all from different addresses, were lodged within 60 days.
In all of 2015, there were 250 complaints from unique addresses, said Greg Svelund, a spokesman for the DEQ.
And they keep coming. “We had almost a dozen just yesterday alone,” he said Thursday.
Naphthalene is an odorous, toxic ingredient in the creosote used by the tie plant to treat railroad ties to prevent decay. (See related story.)
The state does not just take the word of complainants. Every few months, a pair of DEQ employees visit the same 14 locations in The Dalles and have a sniff for themselves to mark the strength, duration and offensiveness of odors.
They attend odor smell school, and have to demonstrate enough sensitivity to be able to rate any smell they detect on a scale from one to five.
After passing the one-day odor school, they start off with five varying strengths of a chemical that smells kind of like a Magic Marker.
They put each one in a beaker and put a lid on it, then head out for The Dalles.
Once there, they spend about two and a half hours testing. “There is no machines we can use to do this so we have to employ people,” he said. “This is as scientific as we can make it.”
They not only get a whiff, but they also note the temperature, wind and humidity. That test is only part of the calculus the state does as it assesses complaints.
Svelund talks to many of the complainants himself, sometimes on a daily basis.
One of the hardest concepts to get across is the difference between how much naphthalene represents an acute risk (200 micrograms per cubic meter) vs. the tiny amount (.03 micrograms per cubic meter) that, with constant exposure over an entire lifetime, represents enough long-term risk to cause one case of cancer per one million people.
“It’s really hard for people to comprehend the difference between short term and long term, especially when kids are involved, It’s just really hard,” Svelund said.
“The concerns and the odors themselves are very real for people,” he said.
“There are personal sensitivities not only to naphthalene but to any odor, and there’s real health effects to that,” Svelund said.“You can get headaches, and you can get scratchy nose and scratchy mouth, and it doesn’t matter what the odor is, in this case it happens to be naphthalene.”
He added, “There’s no doubt that this happens, and that makes this really hard.”
Of the citizens calling with complaints, he said, “For the most part they’re very reasonable and just concerned people and they’ve really done a lot to try to understand this facility and our role in it.”
David Farrer, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said naphthalene starts as a liquid but wants to be a gas, so it evaporates.
Heat increases the rate that it evaporates. “That’s one of the reasons in hot weather that off gassing is more of an issue because the heat is speeding that up.”
Naphthalene is the main ingredient in mothballs, and is the reason mothballs are illegal in most states anymore, he said.
Much of what is known about the acute toxic effects of naphthalene is from kids swallowing mothballs or infants who are swaddled in blankets that were stored with mothballs.
Sometimes, adults simply used an excess of mothballs in their home and poisoned themselves. The main illness associated with naphthalene toxicity is hemolytic anemia.
Initial air quality testing of naphthalene levels from the AmeritTies plant were far from posing immediate health risks, but are concerning for long-term health, officials say.
“I don’t want people to be alarmed as far as short-term risks, but over the long term we definitely want those emissions to come down, there’s no doubt,” said Greg Svelund, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Levels of naphthalene were 117 times the safe lifetime limit at a site near AmeriTies, and 13.7 times the lifetime limit on the residential bluff overlooking the tie plant, an ongoing air quality study found.
The lifetime risk threshold refers to “a constant, continuous exposure throughout a lifetime,” said Dr. David Farrer, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority.
That is defined as 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over the course of an expected 80-year lifespan, he said.
Naphthalene is the odorous toxin found in creosote, which is used to treat railroad ties to preserve them.
For context, he said employees would spend 40 hours of 168 per a week at their job, and the average career is estimated to last 30 years.
The company is planning to institute by year’s end a new method of treating ties that could halve the use of naphthalene and be “a game changing option,” Svelund said.
The highest levels were found at the Wasco County Planning Office building, which abuts the tie plant. Farrer noted that the county planning office is in industrial/business area with no residences.
A third testing site was located at the west end of town, far enough away from AmeriTies to likely only pick up background levels of naphthalene, which are also present in vehicle emissions and tobacco smoke. That site, at St. Mary’s Academy, was below the lifetime threshold. The lifetime risk threshold is .03 micrograms per cubic meter. The acute risk level is 200 micrograms per cubic meter. The Wasco County site averaged 3.52 micrograms per cubic meter and the bluff site was .41 micrograms. St. Mary’s was .022 micrograms.
AmeriTies issued a statement saying it is working with the state DEQ “to address our neighbors’ concerns. We are voluntarily changing our processes to a lower naphthalene formula. This requires investment in design and installation of new equipment, which we expect to have completed by the end of the year.
“Our plant has operated at this location in The Dalles since 1922. We conscientiously comply with all state and federal environmental and safety regulations. The state is currently raising issues that have not been raised before. We have demonstrated our commitment to health and safety and will continue to maintain this commitment to our workers, to our neighbors and to our community.”
The last testing was in 2012, when eight-hour “grab sample” air quality tests at the AmeriTies property itself found levels of up to 290 micrograms per cubic meter, which is 9,600 times the lifetime limit. An offsite test found levels at 13 micrograms, or 433 times above the lifetime threshold.
The lifetime threshold is “very low,” Farrer said, and represents the small risk of one additional case of cancer per million people. Naphthalene can increase risk of nasal and respiratory tract cancers. It is most commonly associated with hemolytic anemia, he said.
Cancer is so common that for every one million people, about 300,000 will get it. If the lifetime naphthalene threshold is exceeded, that means the cancer rate risk increases from 300,000 people to 300,001 people, Farrer said.
The goal is to set the threshold at a level low enough to be protective of everyone, even those who are especially sensitive for reasons including age, genetic predisposition or pre-existing health conditions, he said. Naphthalene levels above the threshold “does not necessarily mean anyone’s health is at risk but it does mean we need to pay attention to it,” he said.
The state has begun an 18-month process, Cleaner Air Oregon, to revamp its air quality rules to reflect human health impacts. Current rules do not take that into consideration. The new rules should be done by December 2017.
The air quality test results, released Tuesday, are just the first results from 90 days of testing.
Air samples are taken for 24 hours every three days. A cancer risk study is planned after that, Farrer said, and it will determine whether there is a public health hazard, and then make recommendations.
“The data don’t indicate a need for panic among people living around this facility,” Farrer said.
But Rachel Najjar, who described herself as a “concerned parent,” said, “I'm very disappointed at how DEQ and OHA have handled the monitoring results. We now have two sets of data that prove that the health of people living in The Dalles is at an increased risk because of the toxic emissions coming from AmeriTies.
“The health benchmarks were created to protect even the most vulnerable populations and that is why they should be enforced. What's more important than our children's lives?” She said she’s kept notes of when she smells creosote fumes and has to stay indoors. She said the air quality monitors, which are noisy, are turned on every three days, “and on those days, I have not smelt any fumes. But, the other two days that the monitors are not turned on, the odors have been unbearable.”
Svelund said citizens had concerns that AmeriTies would slow production to lower naphthalene levels. The state looked at a month of production prior to the beginning of testing, and found levels during testing were “a little bit lower” but were “virtually the same.”
Najjar said, “I want to see accurate data of constant air monitoring that includes all of the chemical compounds in creosote that pose a threat to our health. But, even with intermittent monitoring the results exceed the limit that was set to protect our right to breathe clean air.”
Farrer said, “I understand why people are alarmed and frustrated.” He added, “I’m just glad that now things are moving and DEQ is taking action and there’s a plan in place for emissions to be reduced.” He said AmeriTies is a “significant employer” in the area, and reducing emissions “would benefit the workers as well as the community.”