Harvard Medical School researchers have determined Northport, Washington, a tiny 296-resident border town, has 10 to 15 times the normal rates of the inflammatory bowel disease. The town is located downwind and downriver of a smelter in Trail, British Columbia run by Teck Resources, which for nearly a century funneled pollution through the narrow canyon of the Columbia River. Residents have long suspected a link between pollution from the smelter and their high incidence of inflammatory bowel disease.
For nearly a century, the Canadian smelter pumped slag, a byproduct of metals refining, directly into the river. More than 10 million tons of the granular slag created the “black sand” beaches of the upper Columbia, a 150-mile reach of the river between the Canadian border and Grand Coulee Dam. The slag contains 25 compounds that include lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Liquid mercury and other metals also flowed from the smelter’s sewer systems into the river. More pollutants came out of the plant’s smokestacks.
In the 1980s, the state placed air monitors in Northport which detected elevated levels of arsenic and cadmium. In the early 1990s, anglers in the upper Columbia River reported seeing beads of liquid mercury floating in the water. “When we were kids walking to school, we could smell it in the air,” said a 56-year-old resident of Northport who grew up about 15 miles from the smelter’s stacks.
About 1.4 million people nationwide have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, a similar inflammatory bowel condition. The illnesses affect about one in every 200 people. Both diseases are believed to have environmental triggers, but despite extensive research the causes have never been identified. Researchers are now looking to Northport for clues.
Last year, 119 current and former Northport residents took part in a health survey designed by Dr. Josh Korzenik.. Seventeen had confirmed cases of either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. “That’s about 10 to 15 times what we’d expect to see in a population the size of Northport,” said Korzenik, director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals. “I’m not aware of any other cluster like it.”
Researchers have long suspected that environmental toxins play a role in Crohn’s disease and colitis, which have symptoms including abdominal pain and diarrhea. Both illnesses emerged after the Industrial Revolution, when exposure to pollution from coal-fired factories and vehicle emissions became a part of many people’s daily lives.
Korzenik has ruled out a genetic influence in the town’s cluster: Few of the individuals were related. Seven of the 17 cases were people who lived along Mitchell Road, where sulfur dioxide emissions from the smelter killed farmers’ crops in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to an international lawsuit. Korzenik plans to expand his research to nearby communities.
Residents of Washington living along the upper Columbia River suffering from inflammatory bowel disease may be entitled to recover from Teck and/or affiliated corporations for their injuries.