Elevated levels of heavy metals found in Fallon air

RENO - Scientists at the University of Arizona say the air around Fallon has significantly higher levels of tungsten and cobalt than the air around neighboring cities and towns like Reno, Fernley and Lovelock.

"The finding that Fallon's air differs from nearby towns might have medical implications. Since 1997, 16 cases of childhood leukemia have been diagnosed in children who lived in the Fallon area for some time prior to diagnosis," the researchers said.

While tungsten occurs naturally in Nevada, the study suggests the source is not a natural one outside of Fallon, because all the towns would likely have been similarly affected by a natural source.

Moreover, the similarity "of airborne tungsten and cobalt suggests a single source for these two metals," the researchers wrote in their article. "However, cobalt is not abundant naturally in west-central Nevada, and no specific deposits of both tungsten and cobalt are known near Fallon."

"There needs to be more research done to examine the relationship between these metals and the developers of leukemia," University of Arizona research professor of pediatrics Mark L. Witten wrote in the report.

"We're doing that in my lab. It's another step to try and identify a possible environmental cause of leukemia," he wrote.

Kennametal, Inc., operates a tungsten smelter 10 miles north of Fallon and a tungsten-carbide manufacturing plant in Fallon.

Kennametal officials said the smelter 10 miles north of Fallon has reduced metals emissions by up to 98 percent since 1994 and their in-town plant has had "zero emissions" after high-grade air filters were installed in 2001.

"That means we have no point sources going into the atmosphere," said Gary Peterson, Kennametal plant manager in Fallon. "We're not emitting anything."

In the study, lead researcher Paul R. Sheppard wrote, "Our research found elevated levels of tungsten within a three-kilometer radius of the hard-metal plant."

"The biomedical ramifications of tungsten are not really all that well known," he said. Sheppard added that occupational exposure to cobalt has been implicated in lung and other cancers.

Their article "Elevated tungsten and cobalt in airborne particulates in Fallon, Nevada: Possible implications for the childhood leukemia cluster" was prepared for the journal Applied Geochemistry.


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