Public Health

Miners in Butte historically faced many health risks due to exposure to mining-related contaminants. Residents today deal with health risks associated with exposure to mine waste.

Miners in Butte historically faced many health risks due to exposure to mining-related contaminants. Residents today deal with health risks associated with exposure to mine waste.

Public health has always been a key issue in Butte and around Montana’s Clark Fork Basin. Historically, miners worked in very unhealthy conditions, ore smelters created serious smoke problems that impacted human health, and contaminated water has forced communities like Butte to pump-in clean municipal water over long distances.

In the 2011 Five Year Review Report for Butte area sites, EPA notes the primary ways citizens can be exposed to hazardous substances in Butte:

  • Ingestion of surface soils (for residents, commercial workers, and railroad workers), mainly through the air (breathing/respiration), as surface soils can be stirred-up by wind.
  • Ingestion of interior dust (for residents and commercial workers), again through air (breathing/respiration). This is a particular concern in many of Butte’s older houses, where renovations can release previously trapped contaminants.
  • Dermal exposure (through the skin) to surface water (for recreational visitors).
  • Ingestion of surface water (for recreational visitors).

EPA focuses on lead, mercury and arsenic as “trigger” substances. While many other toxic substances are present in Butte mine waste, EPA feels that by monitoring levels of these “big three” toxins, the levels of other toxic substances will also be kept at a low level.

Also in the Five Year Review, EPA notes that, “Previous response actions and the residential lead abatement program have significantly reduced some but not all of the human health risks.” As cleanup moves ahead, health risks will be addressed through maintenance of existing capped waste sites, the development of new caps and waste removals, and continued water management.

Ongoing remediation and restoration are addressing many public health issues, particularly those related to possible exposure to toxic mine wastes in the future. However, the extent and level of past human exposures to mining-related toxins is a matter of much debate. CTEC feels that the issue is key to the future of the Butte community and the long-term environmental sustainability of ongoing cleanup.


Recent Issues

In 2012 the public health issue in Butte flared-up with the release of a PhD dissertation by Dr. Stacie Barry, a Butte resident, titled Coming to the surface: the environment, health, and culture in Butte, Montana (2012). A health study segment of the dissertation caused controversy after describing Butte mortality rates as higher than rates in the State of Montana and the nation. Numerous articles appeared in regional media about the study and EPA’s response. A partial survey of those articles is featured in the links below.

In response to this controversy, EPA recently released a report about Cancer Incidence in Silver Bow County, Montana, and the United States (May 2012) from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.


Community Concerns

As part of the Five Year Review Report for Butte sites (2011), EPA conducted community interviews with 78 local residents. Some expressed concerns over public health issues in Butte. Excerpts are included below, and full comments and EPA responses are included in Volume 1 – Site-Wide Review Summary Appendix A: Community Interviews and Volume 6 – Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit Appendix G: Responsiveness Summary (note that these two documents are identical except for their titles).

  • West Side Soils Operable Unit: Some people were concerned about human health risks to residents and recreationalists. More homes are being built in the area, some on or near mine waste materials, and more people have been observed walking or riding vehicles on the waste materials. This OU is in the forward planning stages with a remedial investigation scheduled for 2013. EPA is likely to start the process sooner, in response to public comments. This OU was not included in this five-year review.
  • Concerns about Human Health and Cancer. Most community members were concerned about the long-term health effects of living in a contaminated area. Cancer, specifically, was mentioned in more than one quarter of the interviews, though there was no shortage of general health concerns. Several interviewees mentioned that friends and family members had died of cancer at a young age. People in Rocker believe there is a higher rate of stomach cancer. These community members wanted to see more studies. A few people mentioned the pig study (in vitro bioavailability of lead from soils). These people also wanted a comprehensive study on the health effects of living in a contaminated area. CTEC wanted to know if the BSB Health Department could expand their testing to include hair samples. One interviewee is looking at mortality rates in Butte. She says that because Butte is a very sedentary community and many people are multi-generational, she can track birth defects and also death certificates.

Additional comments regarding health can be found in the 2006 Record of Decision for the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit in Part 3: Responsiveness Summary, and excerpts are included below:

  • In regards to the EPA Proposed Plan for the area: The Proposed Plan contains contradictory positions, assertions, and recommendations. In 1986, EPA identified BPSOU as site because people were living among sources of toxic mine waste but now the preferred alternative does not speak to the level of toxicity in the remaining waste. The proposed plan indicates that ingestion of soils and dust is a primary exposure pathway yet, in other parts of the proposed plan, EPA maintains that there are no exposure pathways (e.g., attic dust). If arsenic in soils, indoor dust, and surface water has been determined to pose a human health risk, why is EPA not cleaning up contaminated soils and indoor dust? Regarding operation and maintenance, the proposed plan states that if materials are removed, less O&M will be required and there will be no need for future programs to address contaminated solid media. Yet, the Proposed Plan rejects these alternatives that are clearly more in line with the Superfund mandate to clean up sites.
    • EPA Response: EPA’s proposed plan does not state that there are no exposure pathways ever at BPSOU. However, unless there is an exposure pathway for the attic dust to be accessed or for dust from attics to get into the home, there is no human health risk associated with the attic dust. The proposed plan states that if there is an exposure pathway of attic dust into the living areas of a home, the BSB Residential Metals program will address the dust. Secondly, EPA has been and will continue to address contaminated soil and indoor dust (if an exposure pathway exists). EPA has done extensive reclamation of the storm water drainages and the floodplain of the BPSOU to address human health and environmental risks associated with surface water. And finally, the agency agrees that less O&M is required with total removals but has concluded that total removals in the BPSOU are not practicable.
  • Concerned about Health Risks of Attic Dust: Commenters expressed concern that the smelter dust in homes had not been adequately characterized and that baseline data to determine health risks had not been collected. Additionally, many said they were concerned about the health of those living in homes with contaminated dust and the health of those who undertake remodeling projects in those houses. Some asked how a person’s health is affected if the dust is not removed.
    • EPA Response: The risk assessment quantitatively evaluated resident contact with attic dust and evaluated the likelihood that the attic dust was contributing arsenic, lead, or mercury to the living space house dust. The evaluation found that exposures to attic dust were below EPA’s levels of concern for both cancer and non-cancer effects for all likely users, based on a detailed use survey done in conjunction with ATSDR. The evaluation also found that the attic dust was not a significant contribution source to the inorganic levels measured in the living space house dust. The evaluation found that in the unusual situation where attics became actiial living spaces or were significantly altered through remodeling which caused significant releases to living spaces, unacceptable risk was present. In these instances, the ROD requires prompt cleanup of attic dust to eliminate this risk.
  • Concerned about Health Effects/Risks: When they bought their house 10 years ago they weren’t aware they would be exposed to heavy metals; there was never any mention to us that if we grew vegetables that we should have our soils tested, or that our pets may be bringing metals-laden soil into our house, or to check the dust in our attic and walls before remodeling. Feels the houses in their area have not been taken care of properly by EPA. Need to perform comprehensive long term assessments of public health.
    • EPA Response: All homes in the BPSOU will be tested and those that need to be addressed will be cleaned up. If commenter has a concern about property remediation, BSB County or EPA should be contacted. EPA encourages and supports long-term health assessments.
    • Side Note: To date, all homes in BPSOU have not been tested, and there do not appear to be any practical plans to do so. There have also been no long-term health assessments until very recently.


Further Exploration

  • Refer to the Public Health News page for a listing of past and current articles and stories related to public health in the greater Butte area.
  • Visit the Residential Metals Abatement Program (RMAP) page for more information about assistance you can receive to reduce potential exposure to hazardous substances in Butte.
  • If you have questions or concerns about public health issues related to environmental damages in western Montana, contact CTEC for assistance and support, join our email newsletter list to receive regular updates, or simply leave a comment and we will reply as soon as possible.
  • You can also find complete contact information for EPA staff and other agency personnel on the Superfund Contacts page.


Public Health Documents from the Superfund Library


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