A health consultation by a federal agency concluded pollutants from AmeriTies did not pose chronic public health risks to people in the area, but strong odors could still trigger physical symptoms.
The Oregon Health Authority on May 1 released the report, which was authored by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
“We’ve heard community members’ concerns that health problems they are experiencing may be related to their exposures,” said Susanna Wegner, Ph.D., public health toxicologist in the Environmental Public Health Section at the OHA Public Health Division. “Some health problems may be related to odors. We know that odors can cause immediate, strong physiological responses.”
An open house to discuss the health consultation and other air quality testing results is set for Tuesday, May 15 from 6-8 p.m. at Columbia Gorge Community College, 400 E. Scenic Drive, Building 2, third floor auditorium.
The most common symptoms in response to environmental odors are headache and nausea, as well as dizziness, watery eyes, stuffy nose, irritated throat, cough or wheeze, and sleep problems.
The federal agency, in collaboration with OHA, prepared the report at the request of the North Central Public Health District. The district requested help in understanding if exposure to outdoor air pollutants—naphthalene and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—posed long-term health risks to residents near the AmeriTies West facility, which treats wooden railroad ties.
Naphthalene is the smelly ingredient in creosote, which is used as a wood preservative by AmeriTies.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) signed a mutual agreement and order with AmeriTies in April 2016 to reduce odors. The order outlined a range of odor-reduction actions the company would make, including using a different wood preservative with half the naphthalene. AmeriTies made the preservative change later that year, and DEQ continues to work with AmeriTies to reduce odors.
AmeriTies West President John L. McGinley said in a statement, “AmeriTies is satisfied to learn that a state/federal health study found no apparent public health hazard related to 2016 air monitoring for naphthalene or benzo[a]pyrene. Monitoring in The Dalles also found cancer risk well below levels established in the state’s new Cleaner Air Oregon law.”
He said it was important to note the health consultation relied on air quality monitoring data gathered before the switch to the low-naphthalene formula.
“We are committed to protecting the safety of our workforce, environment and community and will continue to conscientiously comply with all state and federal health and safety regulations,” he said.
Kristina Cronkright, who moved away from the area because of adverse health effects she attributes to emissions from the tie plant, called the health consultation “forty pages of a huge waste of time.”
She said nothing meaningful was done, and said a true measure of the scope of contamination would involve addressing health of residents, plus soil, water and dust sampling.
“Every other town that has housed a creosote operation in the United States that has ever been tested has been found to be extremely contaminated,” she said.
Earlier this month, DEQ issued a report on air quality monitoring done at three locations last summer, which found levels of naphthalene were almost half what they used to be.
Three criteria are used: a cancer risk benchmark, which measures lifetime exposure; a non-cancer benchmark; and an acute risk benchmark.
In the 2017 data, the average concentrations of naphthalene found at all three monitoring stations were above the benchmark for cancer risk, but below benchmarks for acute exposure and non-cancer health effects.
The cancer risk benchmark for naphthalene is .03 micrograms per cubic meter. The acute exposure level is 200 micrograms per cubic meter and the non-cancer risk level is 3.7 micrograms per cubic meter.
The findings from the air quality report showed naphthalene concentration levels between .002 and 2.48 micrograms per cubic meter.
The average concentration of naphthalene per cubic meter was 1.16 at the Wasco County building next to AmeriTies, .3 at City Park and .04 at 10th and Cherry Heights.
The results showed that high temperature correlated with higher concentrations of naphthalene.
AmeriTies had less production in 2017 compared to 2016, but more treated products were stored in 2017, according to the DEQ.
The testing was purposely done in summer, when the weather is the hottest and the most off-gassing occurs from treated railroad ties. All ties drying at the plant have been treated with the new formula. Ties are usually moved to customers within 90 days.
The new Cleaner Air Oregon benchmarks referred to by AmeriTies have not been approved yet, but are still being written, said Keith Johnson, special assistant to the director of DEQ for Cleaner Air Oregon.
The proposed new benchmarks significantly loosen the existing standard. They would change it from a one in a million risk of getting cancer to a 50 in a million risk of getting cancer.
That new rate was set in the legislation that funded Cleaner Air Oregon, Johnson said.
Increasing the current rate of .03 micrograms per liter by 50 times would equal 1.5 micrograms per liter. All of the average readings taken in The Dalles were below that level. But some readings did reach as high as 2.48 micrograms per liter.
The DEQ is still doing on-going air quality monitoring that will continue for a year.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to explain proposed new standards under Cleaner Air Oregon.