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Report: Arsenic exposure possible

| Wednesday, April 6, 2005

FORWARD TOWNSHIP - Joe Debevec experienced a sore throat while shoveling ash from a slide along his Rostosky Ridge Road home in Forward Township early this year.

A new federal report claims Debevec and his neighbors may have been exposed to excessive levels of arsenic after state Department of Environmental Protection officials asked them to shovel the ash from their yards so a contractor could haul it away.

The slide initially occurred Jan. 25 when the ground broke loose and water, slurry and tree branches rushed down the hill onto Rostosky Ridge Road, located just off Route 136.

Some water and debris from the slide spilled onto Route 136 near Rapp's Restaurant.

Because the material was dumped in an open field above Rostosky Ridge Road more than 50 years ago, DEP officials are not certain what it contained. They believe it is either fly ash or bottom ash, the byproduct of burning coal for the production of electricity.

The residents handled the ash without protection for their lungs, eyes or skin, according to a report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They shouldn't have asked the residents to clean it up," Debevec said. "It should have been handled by the proper people instead of asking the residents to do so."

Helen Humphreys Short, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency concentrated on removing the ash as quickly as possible.

If the agency could do it again, "I think we would involve the health department earlier and would defer to the medical experts," she said.

Debevec said he believes the DEP did its best to help residents, but believes the agency is "partially to blame" for possible arsenic exposure to residents.

Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, said officials are convinced the residents haven't suffered any significant exposure.

"We believe that the fly ash in its present state poses no significant health risks and are not convinced that the symptoms reported by the residents are related to fly ash exposure," Cole said.

Potential health risks from ash remaining in yards depend on how quickly it can be cleaned up, according to the report.

Karl Markiewicz, a toxicologist with the federal agency, said fly ash poses three health hazards: some of it is small enough to be inhaled, it can irritate lungs and other body tissues, and it contains arsenic, which is toxic. Samples collected by the DEP revealed elevated levels of arsenic in a stream and groundwater but the agency said there was no danger because the water is not consumed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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