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AAMU Researchers Note Continuing Environmental Concerns for Alabama Town

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Huntsville, Ala. ---- Two Alabama A&M University researchers have collected water samples from a small rural Alabama town whose name became synonymous with water pollution and calls for environmental justice in the 1970s.


Dr. Paul Okweye, a chemist, and Dr. Karnita Golson-Garner, an environmental Okweye.jpg
scientist, collected some 20 tap water samples, along with 100 questionnaires, from selected residences in old and new sections of the town of Triana, Ala.  The researchers wanted to compare measurements for certain contaminants and metals against e
stablished Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water quality criteria (WQC).  Their research was funded by the IDC-HSHD Evans-Allen Research Project at AAMU.


Golson.jpgAlthough copper was detected in 90 percent of the samples, the scientists found that most contaminants fell within permissible limits established by EPA.   However, concentrations for lead, bromodichloromethane, and dichloroacetic and trichloroacetic acid failed to meet the established WQC, including maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) and life-time health advisories (HAs). The presence of these substances is indicative of synthetic chemical contamination, the scientists concluded.                                           


The AAMU research project also revealed that certain contaminants are present at levels that show “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential.”  Additional outcomes include an increase in knowledge concerning the potential danger posed to human health after long-term exposure to contaminants in Triana’s drinking water. 


This project, say the researchers, fortified the need for improved education and outreach efforts in Triana.  Meanwhile, results from the questionnaire indicated that 42 percent of the respondents were extremely concerned about the quality of their drinking water.  One of the most significant outcomes of the project was the discovery of “the lack of knowledge that exists concerning water quality.”  Sixty percent of the respondents were not sure about the source of their drinking water supply. 


Interestingly, 70 percent of the respondents were interested in learning more about water quality.  As far as outcomes for human health, over 50 percent of the respondents rated the condition of their overall health as either fair or poor. Ninety percent of the respondents felt that the quality of their drinking water affected their health, and only a third had filtration systems in their home.


More than 30 years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) released a report showing extensive DDT pollution in the Huntsville Spring Branch near the small town of Triana, Ala.  Study results revealed that fish taken from the Huntsville Spring Branch displayed DDT amounts up to 200 parts per million (ppm), which was 40 times the federal limit.  The presence of DDT in the water was linked to the Redstone Arsenal, located in nearby Huntsville, Ala.


The Arsenal had leased the facility to the Olin Corporation from 1947 until it was closed in 1970. Olin, which manufactured and sold DDT to the Army and other companies for use as a pesticide, apparently had been discharging their wastewater contaminated with DDT into the Huntsville Spring Branch. During the 22 years the facility was in operation, as much as 4,000 tons of DDT escaped and accumulated in the sediment along the Huntsville Spring Branch.


The Huntsville Spring Branch flows south through the mostly poor and predominately black town of Triana, whose residents relied heavily on fish taken from the local waters. After the TVA report was released, then Triana mayor and Alabama A&M alumnus Clyde Foster, concerned that the local citizens might have been contaminated, requested that residents be checked for signs of DDT in their bodies.


The Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, Georgia, was sent to test the residents.  Initially, twelve (12) inhabitants were tested for DDT in their blood. The results showed that not only was DDT present in their blood, but that the levels were three times the normal levels of DDT found in other case studies. The compared case studies were of workers at DDT plants, yet none of the residents tested in Triana had ever worked at such a facility.  Previous research conducted by Drs. Okweye and Golson-Garner provides evidence that DDT still remains a concern for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in Triana, Ala.


While limited, the recent AAMU study resources allowed the creation of baseline water quality data that can be used to advance research, improve health programs, and develop new environmental education and outreach instruments. Lastly, the resources generated information and the availability of tools that will be used to modify citizen behavior toward water quality and enhance environmental stewardship.


For additional information about the project, contact Dr. Okweye at (256) 372-4931 or Dr. Golson-Garner at (256) 372-8331.

by Jerome Saintjones