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Leaving no stone unturned: BU geologist sifts environmental clues in search of answers to Hillcrest cancer concerns

Binghamton University geology professor Joseph Graney and his research team last month reported the results of a study that could help shed light on a high incidence of childhood cancer at a public meeting in Hillcrest.

Graney and the team undertook the study in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Defense Logistics Agency. Beginning in October 1998, six children under age 14, all living within a one-mile radius in Hillcrest, were diagnosed with cancer in a brief period. Graney’s quest was to address what, if anything, in the area’s soil and sediment might have contributed to the high cancer rate.

Hillcrest is home to two metal finishing businesses (one a Superfund site) and an Army storage depot. All three could be possible sources for heavy metals that are known carcinogens such as chromium, nickel, cadmium and lead. All three were areas of concern, but Graney concentrated on sampling at the Army depot.

“The Army storage facility had housed materials including liquid mercury in flasks inside warehouses,” he said. “The roofs of these warehouses act to amplify airborne deposits of pollutants into an adjacent stormwater retention pond. We basically set up three interrelated projects. One to monitor mercury emissions, another to learn what is happening in the present day as far as surface water contamination, and another to look at the past — to look at the historical record of pollutant pathways.”

The team collected sediment from the pond adjacent to the Army depot, from other locations near the Broome County Airport and within the BU Nature Preserve, to chart pollutant history.

“We took several core samples from each pond,” he said. “Particulates settle near where they enter the water column in the ponds, and the composition of the particles can provide a geochemical fingerprint of past activities.”

Graney knew analysis of the core samples was working as desired when he found that the rise and fall of lead levels corresponded with the rise and fall in use of leaded gasoline. The samples also indicated that there were at least two possible sources for heavy metals found in them — the atmosphere and the natural erosion of soil.

The researchers used several methods to date the timing of pollutant deposits within the ponds. “The depot was built in the 1940s,” he said. “We placed that information on a timeline to help determine that historical differences in metal plating processes were preserved in pond sediment. We analyzed a suite of inorganic metals to accomplish this task, but would have liked to have included organic compounds as well.”

Next came a look at water pathways to answer the question, “Do trace metals in surface water runoff exceed New York state regulations and how do you differentiate between the sources?” Graney said. Nothing found in his study exceeds standards.

“Based on the results from the initial study, we’re now interested in looking at what happens on a year-round basis from a biogeochemical basis,” he said. “For instance, we need to work with biologists to determine why dissolved trace metals in runoff have high concentrations in the spring.”

Finally, Graney turned to air quality. “We’re going to use mercury as a surrogate substance, a tracer if you will, to determine how other elements behave,” he said. “For example, pollution builds up when wind velocity decreases overnight. Mercury emissions travel from several sources to the Hillcrest area. We’re not dealing with high levels, but incorporating meteorology is important to look at the big picture.”

Graney’s research can identify the sources of pollutants, but he said the next move will be to work with atmospheric modelers to check the importance of river valleys, which he refers to as potential pollutant traps.

“The strength of the geologic perspective is recreating the historical record,“ he said. “We need to merge geology with further biology, meteorology and chemistry studies to better understand the transport pathways. We have found a few answers to environmental issues at Hillcrest, but the issue of cancer is a complex one. Perhaps my work will inspire others to use non-traditional perspectives to work on environmental health issues.”

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