The event of concern is the Raritan Bay Slag Site or Laurence Harbor which is located in Old Bridge Township. The contaminant of concern is Lead. The elevated Lead levels started in the late 1960s and early 1970s and then became worse after this metal slag collected over the years. Originally, this slag claimed to be put along the seawall to prevent erosion, but it only proved to be dangerous. The consistently rising Lead levels were found throughout the area such as the seawall, sediment, water, and multiple surrounding areas. After the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection investigated the area, they concluded these heavy metal concentrations to be a concern for public safety. The EPA later declared Laurence Harbor and surrounding areas a Superfund site needing immediate cleanup and attention. Some pieces of the slag were physically removed while other parts of the premises were gated off. The cleanup still hasn’t been fully complete and these high levels of Lead still are still present which is creating concern among visitors and homeowners living in this area of Middlesex County.
Event & Contaminant Properties
- The cause of the elevated lead and other heavy metal concentration levels which contributed to the closure of the beach and gating of surrounding areas is from wastes deposited into the Raritan River by NL Industries. The slag found at Laurence Harbor is a by-product from the wastes that were dumped by the company.
- The current residential population in Laurence Harbor, Old Bridge Township where this event took place is currently around 6,500 people.
- The residents of this area are supplied by public water and treatment facilities which operate under the Old Bridge Township facility.
- Lead is generally used for commercial uses to create products. The company, NL Industries that deposited the wastes in this area used Lead to create blast furnaces. This production of blast furnaces created waste and then they later used the waste in the form of slag to construct a seawall along Laurence Harbor spanning hundreds of feet. Lead can also sometimes be seen in the car industry because this kind of metal can be used on wires to prevent corrosion. Lead, in addition, can be utilized for societal and commercial uses because many firearms, paint, cosmetics, and plumbing material contain it.
- The contaminant that affected this site was released in a solid form because large pieces of Lead were found along the seawall and particles in the surrounding sand. These larger pieces were mostly discarded later on, but the smaller pieces remain since they are much harder to remove.
- When Lead is combined with Mercury, it creates a synergistic effect. The interaction of the two together produces a much greater effect than if they are individually encountered. This is because the toxicity in total increases once combined or consumed together. Another synergistic effect happens is when the heavy metal Cadmium combines with Lead. The safe dose drastically decreases because the two metals combined are significantly more lethal.
- Lead is usually found with other elements such as Zinc, Silver, and Copper because Lead is often difficult to remove by itself. These three metals are not necessarily dangerous because small amounts of them will not cause harm. Larger amounts such as ingestion of Zinc or Copper might cause damage and be toxic to humans.
Human & Animal Health
- Ingestion is the primary source of human exposure for Lead. Ingestion of Lead from the Laurence Harbor contamination site can be from the affected water. Eating the fish or biota that have been in the infected water can result in Lead accumulation. A secondary source of human exposure at this location is inhalation. Inhalation of Lead is common at this site because there are high amounts of it found in the area. The higher the concentration of Lead, the more likely people are to be at risk for inhaling it. Inhalation also depends on duration, clearance, and activity being performed by the individual. The last and less common human exposure associated with this contaminant is dermal exposure. Dermal exposure at this contamination site can be encountered when people touch the seawall or slag found at the seawall and around the beach. Children are particularly more vulnerable to dermal exposure than adults are.
- Some acute health effects in humans from exposure to lead are known to be stomach aches, muscle weakness, and vomiting or diarrhea. A chronic health effect associated with intense exposure is that the central nervous system gets affected. Over longer periods of time, gastrointestinal symptoms arise. Anemia, aggressive behavior, and discoloration to the teeth are also signs of chronic Lead exposure. Acute effects are not as severe as the chronic health effects but they are early signs that bring awareness to the amount of a heavy metal one is being exposed to.
- The contaminant is suspected to be carcinogenic to humans. Lead can cause tumors in certain parts of the body especially the brain or the lungs. Lead is also a known teratogen because it causes birth defects to a fetus which can include reduced fetal growth, inhibited brain development, and low birth weight. Lead, in addition, is a strong neurotoxin because it acts strongly on the central nervous system. Lastly, Lead is also considered a reproductive risk because high amounts of it in the mother or father can prevent fertility or even induce spontaneous abortions.
- This contaminant targets multiple organs. Some of these organs include the brain, lungs, kidneys, and the bones. Lead in the bones is particularly dangerous because it stays for longer periods of time and can be released in pregnancy causing devastating effects in the maturing fetus.
- There are multiple epidemiologic studies found that associate Lead with illness. One study focused on Lead exposure and cardiovascular disease. They were able to measure Lead levels particularly in the blood and connect it to heart disease. Researchers in this study concluded that there is a relationship between the amount of Lead an individual is exposed to and their risk to acquire hypertension. There was also evidence suggesting that there is a possible connection between lead exposure and heart rate variability although the evidence was not fully sufficient to conclude this hypothesis. Another epidemiological study focused on Lead dose and cognitive function in adults. In this study, researchers were able to gather recent Lead levels found in the blood and cumulative Lead levels found in the bone. In the end, they were also able to create a relationship between the acute recent exposures and the chronic longer-term exposures and found an association with psychiatric symptoms such as major depressive disorder and irritability with higher levels of Lead.
- There have been many toxicological studies done on both humans and animals that evaluate and cite the specific risks of Lead. A study done on lead exposure to human health cited that risks include disruption of functions of the digestive, nervous, respiratory, and reproductive system. Another toxicology study done on animal health cited lead exposure risks to include poor performance and poisoning in species.
- Lead has shown to be dangerous and poses a serious threat to humans and animals. There is no “safe” level of lead because it is not beneficial to the body in any way. This contaminant has been linked to many health risks including infertility, underdevelopment of the brain and nervous system, and chronic illnesses such as kidney disease. In animals, some health risks that can be found with lead exposure include blindness, seizures, and even death. In the Laurence Harbor contamination event, they were not as concerned about the acute effects but the protection agencies were more concerned about the adding up of chronic Lead levels in the body.
- There were no human deaths in this contaminant release but the biota, on the other hand, has been greatly affected. Certain species in this area have disappeared or severely declined because of high exposures to the heavy metal. One species that has completely disappeared is the amphipod which was an organism always seen around the Raritan Bay. Once there were higher levels of Lead than normally found in the water, these organisms were no longer able to survive because they were being poisoned. Other species affected by this contaminant include grass shrimp, algae, invertebrates, and fish, although fish were found with the lowest concentration of Lead in their bodies. A decrease in plant life diversity has also been experienced likely due to the contaminated soil which also directly affected the other wildlife residing in this area.
- Some occupations that may be exposed to Lead can include but are not limited to are production workers, home-renovation workers, and even demolition workers.
- The contaminant at this site has many media it was released into. The slag dumped along the seawall let the Lead accumulate in the water which later found itself in the soil and the surrounding areas. Now the media for this contaminant include the water, soil, and the air because individuals can become exposed in all three ways.
- This contamination became widespread and more diffuse, not staying in the immediate proximity of the site. There were higher Lead concentrations found in areas that the protection agencies were unaware of that were later discovered. These other areas were likely affected by this contamination because the Lead may have traveled through the water into different areas of the Raritan Bay such as Cheesequake Creek and areas of Sayreville. Higher overall levels of Lead were also found that may have traveled further away from the coast and into the waters of the Raritan and lower New York bays.
- The dumping of the wastes by NL Industries resulted in degradation to the environment because it severely affected the wildlife living in the area. It caused many species to disappear, and the other various species to decline severely. The Lead also polluted the water, soil, and air since it accumulated over a long period of time.
- There was definitely biomagnification of Lead throughout the food chain in this event. The algae contained the most Lead, followed by the grass shrimp, fish, and then ducks. The fish consumed the smaller grass shrimp which fed upon the algae. In other words, the organisms that consumed the previous smaller organism in the food chain got this contaminant passed onto them. The Lead levels showed to decrease going up the food chain but biomagnification was evidently still present because the heavy metal was distributed as one organism ate the other. Biomagnification is a severe problem in this contamination event because many species were affected by the amount of Lead that was released into different media.
- The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was the first to confirm that there have been abnormally high levels of Lead and other heavy metals in the Laurence Harbor area. They were able to get fencing and protective mechanisms set up so people would be warned about the possible toxic areas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later got involved after the state contacted them to clean up the contamination site. Eventually, the EPA declared this area a Superfund site and tried to protect the overall health of the public with signs and more fencing.
- This site has been declared a federal Superfund site but the cleanup still hasn’t been fully complete. Fencing and signs are still very clear at the site and the state is slowly trying to get everything back to the way it was. There have been seven million dollars of federal funding put towards cleanup of the site in 2016 and this money is being used to fund the cleanup process. The state agency and EPA concluded that this cleanup should have been complete around fall 2017.
- Originally, NL Industries was fined to pay $79 million dollars to the EPA because of the contamination event. The company later sued and claimed that they did not dump the wastes because it was pre-approved by the state and local officials. The company concluded that they only provided the material and followed orders, and were not trying to intentionally pollute the area.
- Local officials communicated the risk to the public by posting signs on areas close to the Superfund site. Local officials also published multiple news articles and held interviews with environmental protection agencies to warn people to stay away from the area and to completely avoid bathing, sitting on the seawall, and being in the soil.
- This contamination could have been easily prevented. If the company did not dump their wastes which included slag and battery casings, the higher concentrations of heavy metals could have been avoided. The Lead would not accumulate if this event never happened and Laurence Harbor would not have been declared a Superfund site.
To conclude, this contamination event first became a problem in the late 1960s and early 1970s because there were wastes being dumped at Laurence Harbor. Over the years, the concentrations of many heavy metals including Lead, Arsenic, Antimony, and Copper rose significantly. Some of these metal concentrations were found to be three times the acceptable amount. This immediately became a topic of concern to the EPA and NJDEP. After the soil and surrounding areas were tested, Laurence Harbor in Old Bridge Township was declared a Superfund site in 2009 by these agencies. The company responsible for this contamination, NL Industries, were given the option to either clean the site or be fined. Some cleanups have been done but it is not fully complete. In the end, environmental damage was still done and it continues to be a serious challenge.
- Joanna Burger, Michael Gochfeld, Christian Jeitner, Mark Donio & Taryn Pittfield. “Lead (Pb) in Biota and Perceptions of Pb Exposure at a Recently Designated Superfund Beach Site in New Jersey.” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A 75.5 (2012): 272-287. Print.
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- “RARITAN BAY SLAG Site Profile.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 20 Oct. 2017, cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.Cleanup&id=020 276#bkground.
- “Synergistic Effects of Mercury & Other Toxic Exposures.” DAMS – Dental Amalgam Mercury Solutions, amalgam.org/education/scientific-evidenceresearch/synergistic-effects-of mercury-other-toxic exposures/.
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