NORTHPORT (AP) — Rose Kalamarides was in her early 20s when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Her older brother also got the debilitating disease. So did one of her childhood friends, her third-grade teacher and a former classmate at her elementary school.
Kalamarides and many other residents of Northport, a tiny 296-resident border town, suspect they got sick because of a smelter up the Columbia River in British Columbia.
Now, Harvard Medical School researchers have determined that the northeast Washington town has 10 to 15 times the normal rates of the inflammatory bowel disease.
The border town is downwind and downriver of a smelter in Trail, B.C., that's run by Teck Resources. For years, the smelter dumped pollutants into the Columbia River.
"When we were kids walking to school, we could smell it in the air," said Kalamarides, now 56, who grew up about 15 miles from the smelter's stacks.
A Teck official declined to comment to The Spokesman-Review.
Researchers believe ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease has environmental triggers, so they are looking at Northport for clues.
About 1.4 million people nationwide have ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, a similar inflammatory bowel condition. The illnesses affect about one in every 200 people. Both diseases are believed to have environmental triggers, but despite extensive research the causes have never been identified.
Last year, 119 current and former Northport residents took part in a health survey designed by Dr. Josh Korzenik. Seventeen had confirmed cases of either ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
"That's about 10 to 15 times what we'd expect to see in a population the size of Northport," said Korzenik, director of the Crohn's and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School's teaching hospitals. "I'm not aware of any other cluster like it."
Researchers have long suspected that environmental toxins play a role in Crohn's disease and colitis, which have symptoms including abdominal pain and diarrhea. Both illnesses emerged after the Industrial Revolution, when exposure to pollution from coal-fired factories and vehicle emissions became a part of many people's daily lives.
Northport might help provide some answers.
Korzenik has ruled out a genetic influence in the town's cluster: Few of the individuals were related. Seven of the 17 cases were people who lived along Mitchell Road, where sulfur dioxide emissions from the smelter killed farmers' crops in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to an international lawsuit.
For a century, the smelter now owned by the Canadian mining company Teck Resources also dumped millions of tons of waste laden with heavy metals into the Columbia River.