UA hosts community teach in on South Tucson water contamination

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United States Geological Survey

Ground cracks between the east and west Kamoamoa fissure segments. The fissure in Arizona is thought to be due to groundwater depletion, largely due to agriculture.

UA’s Mel and Enid Zukerman College of Public Health hosted a bilingual community teach-in Aug. 27 to educate community members on the impact of groundwater contamination in Southern Tucson and begin collaborations with agencies to address future community concerns.

“We know there is a great deal of concern and a lot of history of mistrust in our community with regards to the long-term effects of toxic contamination,” said Francisco Garcia, director of the Pima County Health Department. “We want the community to have the same facts and information we have.”

Current concerns focus on water source contamination from dumping products containing toxic industrial solvents (trichloroethylene and 1,4-dioxane), known to cause cancer, by the U.S. Air Force and Hughes Missile Systems Company into unlined wells from 1940 to 1980.

Because of the potential for these chemicals to leak into ground water, the Environmental Protection Agency named Southern Tucson a national Superfund site in 1982 and called for long-term efforts to monitor and address these pollutants.

“The purpose of the teach-in is to share what we know today about the water and the health of the community on Tucson’s south side,” said Paloma Beamer, associate professor of public health. “We welcome community members to lead the discussion, share their health concerns and help guide next steps.”

The event featured two panels of experts to answer questions from community members on a variety of concerns, a series of tables from a number of government agencies and community organizations and a set of listening sessions which will compile a report to submit to government officials with the help of National Institute for Civil Discourse.

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The first panel, titled “What we know about the water and the community’s health,” featured Garcia; Jeff Biggs, Tucson Water administrator; Farshad Shirazi, medical director of the University of Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center and associate professor of Pharmacology; and Joy Mockbee, medical director of the trichloroethylene (TCE) Medical Monitoring Program.

“Currently, the containment levels in Tucson’s water are not unsafe,” Garcia said. “From my perspective, there is not an acute risk to the folks in our community."

One of the goals of the teach-in was to get community members comfortable with the fact contamination occurred but currently does not exist in concentrations above unacceptable or harmful levels as laid out by the EPA, Garcia said.

“We have very little information on the levels of TCE in the water before 1981 in Tucson,” said Ben Gerhardstein, public health advisor with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

According to Gerhardstein, it is likely Tucson residents drank water from contaminated wells, and some may have suffered negative health consequences before the wells were closed in 1981.

Currently, there are ongoing efforts to treat contaminated water, and all water flowing into homes has been filtered and properly treated.

The second panel, titled “Investigating community health concerns for the future,” featured Beamer; Kenneth Ramos, associate vice president of UA's Precision Health Sciences; and Gerhardstein.

“With improving technology, we are likely to learn more about the chemical contamination in our environment and their toxic effects,” Beamer said.

As previously unknown contaminants are discovered, the potential health impacts of community members must be determined and that information must be shared.

Ramos discussed his knowledge and research of epigenetic.

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According to Ramos, the health impacts of exposure to toxicants can be passed through generations by “locking” the bookmarks found in our genomes which tell cells what functions to carry out.

Studies have been conducted to examine the health impacts and pollution values in Tucson. According to Ramos, though, every individual receives and reacts differently when exposed to doses of contaminants.

“I want to commend the community for their efforts to organize this event,” Beamer said. “It was a grass-roots effort.”

Beyond the organizers, individuals came from as far away as northern Arizona to attend the teach-in and have their questions answered.

Some were personally impacted by diseases like cancer and were frustrated with how the contamination was handled decades ago and until this day.

According to Beamer, the vast majority of chemicals in consumer products and industry have not been tested for their toxic effect on humans.

Pima County does act to ensure companies and industries today follow the regulations laid out by the EPA for the disposal of harmful waste to prevent water contamination.

“We plan to work with our partners, the Arizona Department of Health Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and Pima County, to address concerns in the future,” Garcia said.


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