Communities across the U.S. face potential exposures to hazardous substances that originate from a variety of sources including active and historic industrial facilities and hazardous waste sites. For communities living near sites associated with current or former mining or smelting operations, residents are at risk of exposure to toxic metals that have the potential to harm human health (Eckel, Rabinowitz, & Foster, 2001; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2018).
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) partners with government, academic, and community organizations to conduct hazardous waste exposure investigations (EIs) in U.S. communities. By characterizing environmental exposures to community members, ATSDR provides critical information to stakeholders that guides public health action, including risk mitigation.
This column describes common themes and highlights best practices from ATSDR EIs conducted between 2010-2017 at current or former mining or smelting sites. Common themes were identified through review of final reports and unstructured interviews with staff who led or participated in the EIs.
Four EI sites met inclusion criteria (Table 1). All sites were located in rural areas and three were in the Mountain States. One site had ongoing mining and smelting activity. Environmental sampling revealed elevated concentrations of heavy metals in air, soil, and/or water at all sites, with the most common contaminants being arsenic and lead. The primary routes of exposure were inhalation and ingestion. Vulnerable populations identified during the investigations included children, women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and persons with certain preexisting medical conditions.
Investigators employed a variety of strategies to overcome common barriers across sites, examples of which included scarce public health and community resources, socioeconomic disadvantage, and lack of stakeholder interest. Community engagement before, during, and after investigations was instrumental in promoting awareness, participation, and trust in ATSDR's findings. Effective communication strategies included hosting community meetings, conducting outreach through local media, and meeting individually with concerned citizens. Partnering with state and local officials, community leaders, school administrators, medical professionals, and other influential community members helped EI teams overcome logistical and other challenges. Finally...