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PUBLIC HEALTH ASSESSMENT

VEGA BAJA WASTE DISPOSAL SITE
RIO ABAJO WARD, VEGA BAJA, PUERTO RICO


Summary

The Vega Baja Waste Disposal Site is a public health hazard because long-term exposure to lead in soil in some yards may cause harmful effects in children. Children and especially preschool children who live in yards with elevated levels of soil lead might be exposed to small amounts of lead when they accidentally swallow soil and dust that cling to their hands. Long-term exposure could increase blood lead levels in some children and may cause a decrease in intelligent quotient, a decrease in hearing, and changes in enzyme function in the blood.

The level of lead in garden vegetables from the site is not a public health threat. It is safe for residents to grow and eat garden vegetables.

ATSDR recommends that EPA prevent long-term exposure to lead-contaminated soil where lead levels are consistently elevated. ATSDR also recommends that EPA consult with ATSDR officials to ensure that Superfund activities to stop exposure to lead-contaminated soil at the site continues to be protective of public health.


Purpose and Health Issues

Purpose

In May 1996, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) evaluate lead contamination in soil at the Vega Baja Waste Disposal Site, Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. The purpose of this public health assessment is to describe ATSDR's activities during the investigation, to report the agency's conclusions, recommendations, and public health actions, and to describe ATSDR's enhancement initiative for this site.

Introduction to ATSDR's Enhancement Initiative

Early in the investigation, the agency designated the Vega Baja site as part of ATSDR's enhancement initiative for hazardous waste sites. The enhancement initiative allows ATSDR staff members to try innovative approaches at hazardous waste sites in order to improve ATSDR's investigation.

As part of the enhancement initiative, staff members involved with the site set the following goals:

A) identify and meet the needs of ATSDR's customers in a timely, effective manner,
B) evaluate environmental data on hazardous chemicals to assess and protect public health, and
C) determine actions that are needed to protect public health.

The enhancement initiative encourages staff members to release documents as needed throughout the agency's investigation rather than wait until the end of the investigation and release everything in a public health assessment. The body of this report summarizes the agency's activities and reports while the appendix contains the full reports that the agency released during the investigation.

To investigate the site, ATSDR formed an interagency Vega Baja team, which consists of representatives from ATSDR, EPA, the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (PREQB), and the Puerto Rico Department of Health (PRDOH). Team members are listed below:

Mr. Ben Conetta
Mr. Robert Vaughn
Mr. Mark Maddaloni
Mr. Juan Davila
Ms. Denise Soto
Mr. Tom Budroe
Mr. George Zackos
Mr. Carlos O'Neill
Mr. Luis Santos
Mr. Angel Rodrizuez
Mr. Genaro Torres
Mr. Jimmy Drowne
Mr. Pascual Velázquez
Mr. José Cedeno
Dr. Carmen Deseda
Mr. Artie Block
Mr. Brian von Gunten
Mr. Emilio Gonzalez
Dr. Catherine McKinney
Ms. Naomi Penney
Dr. David Mellard
EPA Region II, New York,
EPA Region II, New York,
EPA Region II, New York,
EPA Region II, New York,
EPA Region II, New York,
EPA Region II, New Jersey,
EPA Region II, New Jersey,
EPA Region II, Puerto Rico,
EPA Region II, Puerto Rico,
EPA Region II, Puerto Rico,
PREQB, Puerto Rico,
PREQB, Puerto Rico,
PREQB, Puerto Rico,
PREQB, Puerto Rico,
PRDOH, Puerto Rico,
ATSDR, Region II, New York,
ATSDR, Region II, New York,
ATSDR, Atlanta,
ATSDR, Atlanta,
ATSDR, Atlanta, and
ATSDR, Atlanta.

Public Health Issues

During the course of the investigation, ATSDR and the Vega Baja team identified the following public health issues:

  • Is lead contamination of soil at the Vega Baja site safe for humans?

  • Are fruit and vegetables grown in yards at the Vega Baja site safe to eat?

  • Are blood lead levels in children living in lead-contaminated yards at the Vega Baja site safe?

  • Is drinking water safe for people to use who live on the Vega Baja site?

Background

Introduction to the Site

The Vega Baja Solid Waste Disposal Site is a 15-acre, inactive landfill in a rural area of Rio Abajo Ward, Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. Houses started being built on the site in the 1970's as landfill activity ceased. Approximately 200 houses now make up the Brisas del Rosario community that exists on the site. Solid wastes accepted at the site while it was an active landfill included institutional, commercial, industrial, and domestic waste (EPA 1996).

ATSDR's Plan For The Vega Baja Waste Disposal Site

Early in the investigation and with assistance from other members of the Vega Baja team, ATSDR developed a plan for the site. Written in February 1997, the plan describes A) the goal of ATSDR's investigation, B) how the Vega Baja team will involve and educate the community, and C) the environmental issues that the team will investigate (see appendix A.) The plan served as an internal, flexible guide within ATSDR for the activities that should be conducted at the site.

Site Investigations

ATSDR's first involvement with the site resulted from an EPA request in May 1996, to review preliminary environmental data. In an ATSDR record of activity (AROA), ATSDR concluded that the environmental data were not sufficient to determine the public health significance of contamination at the site and recommended further environmental characterization (see appendix B.)

In part, interaction with ATSDR led EPA to develop a field sampling plan as part of an expanded site inspection of the site. The field sampling plan described the environmental samples EPA planned to collect to further characterize the site. In June and August 1996, EPA and PREQB collected samples of soil, groundwater, and garden produce from the site (EPA 1996).

In June 1996, ATSDR conducted its first site visit; and, in July 1996, ATSDR designated the site as part of its enhancement initiative. Figure 1 is a time line showing these and other events that took place over the course of ATSDR's investigation of the site.

The Vega Baja team worked together

A) to evaluate the environmental data collected in the expanded site inspection (particularly garden produce and soil),
B) to inspect the site to determine how people might be exposed to environmental contaminants, and
C) to decide how to inform the community.

The Vega Baja team used poster sessions to inform the community of the results of its investigations. Posters in Spanish and English were designed to inform and educate residents of the team's activities and decisions. During a poster session, residents came at any time during the specified hours to read the posters and to ask questions of staff members. The Vega Baja team, which was made up of Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members, held poster sessions on 8 and 9 April 1997, 15 January 1998, and 6 and 7 August 1998.



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