Area dodges quicksilver poisoning

EPA assessment of Red Arrow is expected within weeks

Despite public health concerns over Red Arrow gold milling operations, no one has tested positive for mercury poisoning.

Operations at the illegal, unpermitted Red Arrow gold mill outside of Mancos has placed many area residents on edge, including local naturopathic physician Lyn Patrick. She says Mancos residents should all undergo health assessments to test for volatile mercury airborne exposure.

"Mercury is a very serious neurotoxin and carcinogen," said Patrick.

Despite the concerns, state mining officials have vowed the site doesn't present any public health risk. So far, the guarantee appears to be holding true.

"We have not received any reports of mercury poisoning," said Montezuma County Health Department director Lori Cooper.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency took soil samples from the milling site on Grand Avenue. Mancos town administrator Andrea Phillips said the EPA is expected to release its assessment report of the milling site by the end of the month.

"Any mandatory health screenings will be determined following the EPA assessment," said Phillips.

Region 8 EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Chergo said EPA and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) officials agree that it's too soon to determine if health screenings for mercury or other heavy metals is warranted at this point.

"When we get the sampling data back in a few weeks, it will help the state and ATSDR to define a health consultation that could better answer whether the site poses a risk, to whom and offer recommendations that might include health screenings," Chergo said.

Preliminary sampling of the Red Arrow milling site revealed higher-than-acceptable levels of arsenic and mercury. The milling site was shut down and closed in June after operating for at least six months with a rudimentary ventilation system.

Experts from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety believe the risk of contamination in humans from the site is very low, despite finding more than 1,300 cubic yards of polluted solid materials and more than 2,500 gallons of contaminated liquid ingredients at the milling site.

According to the ATSDR, health effects caused by short-term exposure to high levels of mercury vapor include cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increase in blood pressure or heart rate, a metallic taste in the mouth, eye irritation, headache and vision problems.

The ATSDR warns the impacts to long-term exposure to mercury include anxiety, excessive shyness, anorexia, sleeping problems, loss of appetite, irritability, fatigue, forgetfulness, tremors, changes in vision and changes in hearing.

Those most sensitive to the harmful effects of mercury are pregnant women, infants and young children. During pregnancy, mercury can pass from a mother's body to her developing fetus, and a mother can also pass it on while nursing an infant.

Urine or blood samples can be tested to determine exposure to too much mercury, but the ATSDR recommends a urine test for measuring elemental mercury.

"If someone is concerned, they should go see their doctor," Cooper said.

In addition to EPA soil sampling measures, federal and state officials wrapped up temporary stabilization measures at the milling site on Nov. 3. Phillips said the goal was to secure the site for the winter until final remediation plans could be developed. A timeline for completing the cleanup has yet to be determined.