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Toenails measure toxic exposure in New Jersey

Toenails measure toxic exposure to chromium in Garfield, N.J.. Toenails of residents will be tested to measure the level of exposure to toxic chemicals over the past 18 months.

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The chromium plume is about three-quarters of a mile wide and slightly more than an eighth-mile long, EPA officials said. The substance has traveled from the site underneath the Passaic River and into the city of Passaic. The agency has installed about 40 monitoring wells to monitor how far the metal has spread.

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"We're trying to find out the extent of the plume," said Rich Puvogel, a project manager with the EPA.

High quantities of the metal have been found in 14 homes that have since been cleaned up. Trace amounts were found in 30 to 40 homes. Testing continues, and a nearby school did not show elevated chromium levels.

Cathy Garrone, who bought a house in the neighborhood in 1985, walked her small dog recently across the street from the site where the plant once stood, a lot now fenced off and peppered with mounds of rocks and dirt.

She said she wouldn't have bought there if she had known about the chromium spill, and thinks much more testing needs to be conducted, both of the environment and people.

"I'd like them to do more testing to assure my safety," she said.

The research study is being done in conjunction with the city of Garfield. Officials are hoping the testing can bring some answers to residents.

"It's just been left," Zelikoff said. "A lot of people made mistakes."

Zelikoff and her team hope to test as many as 250 residents; some must live close to the plume and others about 3 miles away as a control group. When residents sign up, they will be given a kit that contains stainless steel toenail clippers (cheap ones contain chrome), instructions on how to clip the nails (samples from all 10 are needed) and an envelope for the clippings. It will take weeks to know the results, and people will be advised by public health nurses and others once the results return.

Test subjects must be between 18 and 65, have lived in Garfield for at least two years, not take chromium supplements, and not smoke.

Residents interested in participating should send an email to  Bernadette Rexford at Bernadette.rexford@nyumc.org.

Many residents are immigrants and relative newcomers, and some don't know about the contamination, Zelikoff said. City officials are working to educate residents, disseminating information about the cleanup to local churches and in four languages: English, Spanish, Polish and Macedonian, said city manager Tom Duch.

Duch said an initial health consultation indicates that there's no higher incidence of cancer in the neighborhood than anywhere else in the city, but he thinks the issue needs additional scientific testing.

"I have some concerns," Duch said. "There are residents who have come to meetings and said, 'This one died, that one died,' and I think it warrants further investigation."

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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