Health study finds no pattern

Published Jan. 30, 2000|Updated Sept. 26, 2005

(ran PW PS editions)

Most of the 60 participants in a study on radiation exposure, sparked by fears of byproducts from the former Stauffer Chemical, can breathe easy.

Charlotte Clark was relieved to learn that her Tarpon Springs home was not exposing her to harmful levels of radon.

Now, if only she could figure out what killed her kumquat tree.

Clark and 59 other residents of Pasco and North Pinellas counties had their homes tested for radon last year and even wore badges for 30 days to see how much radiation they were exposed to during their daily routines.

Most of the participants, like Clark, received favorable news from Pinellas and Pasco county health officials when preliminary test results were released at the end of last year.

They will get a more detailed look at their results next week when both health departments send out reports listing exactly how much radon and radiation each participant was exposed to.

The estimated annual dose of radiation for Clark was well below the national average, according to the study.

"Thank heavens for that. I was kind of tickled," said Clark, who still worries that rain runoff from the nearby Stauffer Chemical Superfund site might be killing her citrus trees. "Every place the water went, the grass died. It's killed my kumquat tree, my orange tree, my grapefruit tree and a lemon tree. It's got to be something in the water.

"But I was glad to hear about the radiation."

The county health departments offered to do the study after hearing from residents who were uneasy about radioactive material found in homes, roads, driveways and parking lots, most in Tarpon Springs and Holiday.

The former Stauffer Chemical Co., now a Superfund site on the Pinellas-Pasco county line, once sold the radioactive material, called slag, to local developers for use in construction.

Both health departments emphasized that the study was not entirely related to Stauffer. Other materials, like brick and granite, can be radioactive as well.

Mike Flanery, director of the Pinellas County Health Department's environmental engineering division, said he is comfortable with the numbers generated by the study. The community does not appear to be exposed to elevated levels of radiation, he said.

"My test was, could I sleep at night?" Flanery said. "I feel pretty good."

Federal regulatory agencies generally recommend that people not receive more than 500 millirem of radiation a year from all sources, including natural, medical and food. For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, those living at sea level are exposed to 26 millirem of cosmic radiation per year. Dental X-rays can expose a patient to 100 millirem at once.

The national average exposure is 360 millirem per year.

Of the 60 participants in the study, three were disqualified because they lost their radiation badges, and a fourth was excluded because she had at least one X-ray during the test period and left her badge on a computer monitor overnight, making her reading artificially high.

Thirty-seven of the remaining 56 participants, or 66 percent of the pool, were exposed to levels of radiation either at or below the national average.

The study estimated that another 15 people received between 360 and 500 millirem per year.

Four people were exposed to more than 500 millirem per year. One Holiday man measured up to 770 millirem per year because radon levels in his home were high.

Flanery said employees in his department's radon program would examine that man's home to see how the radon could be decreased.

Another of the four, a Tarpon Springs woman, lives in a home where slag was used for the foundation. Her total exposure was 503 millirem per year.

The study's results do not seem to show an obvious pattern. Those living closest to Stauffer did not necessarily pick up the highest levels of radiation on their badges.

In fact, some of the lowest levels of gamma radiation were picked up on badges worn by people who lived in nearby Tarpon Springs and Holiday. Meanwhile, several participants from Palm Harbor and New Port Richey _ farther from the Superfund site _ were exposed to higher levels of gamma radiation.

But radioactive materials such as slag could have been distributed widely throughout the community.

Participants kept journals during the 30-day test period, detailing where they traveled and how long they stayed there.

Ken Swann, Pasco County's environmental health director and a participant in the study, said he took his badge and his journal everywhere with him. Results showed that the Port Richey resident was exposed to 358 millirem of radiation per year.

"I wore it religiously. I wore it to bed," Swann said. "I did keep the journal religiously. I thought it was a great idea. As a public health official, I wanted to make sure I was healthy."

The test results for Holiday resident Carol Malfa show she would be exposed to 210 millirem of radiation a year, the lowest exposure for any of the study participants. Malfa lives about 4{ miles north of the Stauffer site, but she was concerned about her exposure to radiation because the nearby neighborhood of Bailey's Bluff has slag in some of its roads and homes.

"I wanted to know if there was anything in my neighborhood we should be concerned about," Malfa said. "I was very happy with the results."