Big Sky Connection
Eric Tegethoff
Sept. 10, 2018

BUTTE, Montana - A new study finds death rates are higher in two Montana counties that are home to some of the most polluted sites in the country.

Researchers compiled death certificates from 2000 to 2015 in all Montana counties and compared causes of death from cancer, stroke and other diseases related to heavy metal exposure.

In Silver Bow and Deer Lodge counties where there are large federal Superfund sites in Butte and Anaconda from past mining operations, deaths were 36 percent higher from strokes and heart attacks, 24 percent higher from organ failure and 19 percent higher from cancer.

"We chose an analysis that makes it harder for things to be significant and actually allows for more room for variability," says Bryn Davis, a junior researcher at the University of South Carolina-Columbia and the study's lead author. "So to still get significant results means more."

Davis notes this research was more detailed than past analyses and viewed through the public health lens.

However, past Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services research found that incidences of cancer were not elevated in Butte's Silver Bow County between 1981 and 2010.

The department says the same is true for Deer Lodge County.

Both the agency and the researchers of this new study say there are differences in how they analyzed this data.

The study does show that mortality dropped slightly in Silver Bow and Deer Lodge between 2000 and 2015, possibly because of Superfund remediation efforts.

However, Suzanne McDermott, University of South Carolina epidemiology professor and leader of this study's research, says active mining in Butte could be hurting cleanup and might also account for only a small decrease in death rates since 2000.

"Maybe it's improving quite a lot if there were no active mining, but there's active mining going on," she states. "So the rate is only going down about, more or less, 3 percent per year. That's not very remarkable given the millions and millions of dollars that's been spent remediating."

Last week, the acting chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, became the first agency administrator to visit Montana's Superfund sites since 1990.

McDermott will be speaking about her study at Montana Tech in Butte on Oct. 18.