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Fact Sheet 1

Fact Sheet #1 January 1995

LaSalle, Illinois


Matthiessen and Hegeler is an inactive zinc rolling mill and smelter that operated from 1858 to 1978. The 160 acre property is located on the west side of the Little Vermilion River in LaSalle, Illinois. In December 1993, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) collected soil and sediment samples from the site and from surrounding properties. These samples included three sediment samples from the Little Vermilion River, seven soil samples from the site property, 13 off-site soil samples, and two background samples 1 1/2 miles north of the site. The sample results will be used to make a preliminary evaluation of possible environmental impacts from past Matthiessen and Hegeler operations.

Sample Results

What are the sample results?

All sample results were compared to the results of two background samples taken 1 1/2 mile north of the site in an area not affected by past operations of Matthiessen and Hegeler. Metals are usually the primary contaminants at old zinc smelters so all the samples were analyzed for inorganics including metals.

Zinc was elevated significantly in all samples when compared to the background samples. Cadmium and lead were significantly elevated in all but one sample when compared to the background sample. Other metals that significantly exceeded background in a high percentage of samples included arsenic, copper, and mercury. Nickel was also found in significant concentrations on-site.

The on-site samples also were analyzed for organic compounds (chemicals that contain carbon) to determine if chemicals other than metals may be of concern. The on-site soil samples showed low levels of a variety of organic compounds including pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), solvents, and chemicals found in oil and coal. The majority of these residues were found in areas of the former coal gas plant, the pottery works, the slag pile, the acid tank, and an area where rusted drums were located. Pentachlorophenol (a wood preservative) was the organic compound present in the highest concentration (36 parts per million). This sample was taken from the site of the old coal gas plant.

Organic analysis of the sediment samples also showed low levels of pesticides and PCBs which could have originated from agricultural or other industrial sources.

Health Effects

Is there a health risk associated with exposure to the chemicals or metals which are found at elevated levels?

Metals are the contaminant of primary concern. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), however, the levels of metals both on-site and off-site do not pose a concern from short-term exposure. Since there are no standards for metals in soil it is difficult to assess whether the metals pose a possible health risk to people exposed over many years.

Many of the metals found are naturally occurring in soil at lower concentrations. The metals found off-site that are of most concern are cadmium and lead. In addition, arsenic, mercury and nickel are found on-site in concentrations that may be a concern to people exposed for many years. Although zinc is the most commonly found metal in all the samples, it does not pose a similar health concern. The human body requires small amounts of zinc for health. Large amounts of zinc in the soil, however, can damage plants.

The IDPH plans to collect additional samples to help evaluate possible long-term health risks. Until more information is gathered, IDPH recommends several steps to reduce one's exposure to metals that may be in the soil. These steps are listed on the last page of this fact sheet.

Why are the metals of possible health concern?

While the levels of metals found in the environmental samples do not pose a concern from short-term exposure, constant exposure over years to even relatively low levels of many metals can increase the risk of long-term (chronic) health problems. Metals can buildup in the body and tend to remain there for many years. Their effects can be very hard to detect and may not show up for many years.

Cadmium, which was elevated both on and off-site, attacks the kidneys and may result in kidney disease later in life. Lead also was elevated both on and off-site. Children and the unborn are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead. Arsenic was found in elevated levels primarily on-site although off-site soils were also higher than the background sample.

Arsenic affects the nervous system and also is a cancer causing agent.

Nickel and mercury were present in levels of concern only in the on-site samples. Nickel on-site is at levels which could result in an allergic reaction (nickel itch) in a small part of the population that is sensitive to nickel. Mercury is widely known to be toxic to the nervous system and is more toxic to developing organisms (such as children) than to adults. Mercury in sediments of the Little Vermilion River could possibly enter the food chain and accumulate in fish.

People may be exposed to these substances through ingestion (swallowing dust or dirt, consuming contaminated food, etc.), inhalation (breathing contaminated dust) or touching the soil. Even though metals usually are not absorbed through the skin, a person could be exposed to the metals if that person puts dirty hands into his/her mouth. Additional sampling is necessary to determine the degree of hazard which might exist from years of exposure.

Are there other possible hazards associated with the Matthiessen And Hegeler site?

In addition to the potential chemical hazard, the old Matthiessen and Hegeler property has many physical hazards on-site such as open pits. Because of the known physical hazards and the potential chemical hazards, IDPH and IEPA strongly urge people with no official business on the site to stay off the property.

Next Steps

When will IDPH conduct additional environmental sampling

The IDPH plans to sample selected homes in the spring of 1995. These samples will include interior dust, soils, and interior and exterior paint. Although paint is not associated with the operation of Matthiessen and Hegeler, paint can be an additional source of lead.

Will the IEPA do further work at the site?

The IEPA will send the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) a package of information which will include the results from the December 1993 samples. The U. S. EPA will evaluate the package and consider whether or not the Matthiessen and Hegeler site should be placed on the National Priorities List (sometimes called the Superfund List). If the site is placed on the Superfund List, responsible parties (including past and present owners and operators of the site) will be asked to conduct a thorough environmental investigation of the site and (if necessary) cleanup or contain the contaminants associated with the site. If responsible parties are unable or unwilling to conduct this work, placement on the Superfund List would allow federal funds to be used for these purposes.

For More Information:

Sample results and other project information will be placed in the LaSalle Public Library (305 Marquette Street) for public review. You may also contact one of the following:

Kurt Neibergall, Illinois EPA Office of Community Relations, at 217-785-3819 or Tom Williams, Illinois EPA project manager, at 815/223-1714. Their mailing address is Illinois EPA, 1021 North Grand Ave. East, P.O. Box 19276, Springfield, IL 62794-9276.

Steps to reduce exposure to dust and soil

Until more information is gathered about possible long-term health risks, the Illinois Department of Public Health recommends the following measures to reduce one's exposure to elevated metals found in the soil.

  • Discourage children from placing non-food items and fingers in their mouths, especially when outside.
  • Keep children's hands and faces regularly washed. Clean hands and face prior to eating and nap or bedtime.
  • Do not allow children to eat outdoors or on the floor.
  • Discourage children from digging or playing in soil; providing a sandbox with clean sand can reduce exposure.
  • Adults should wear gloves when working in the yard or garden. Wash hands and face before eating, drinking, or smoking.
  • Prevent tracking of dirt and dust into the home. Work clothes should be washed separately from other laundry.
  • Keep the home free of dust by regular and vigorous cleaning, using damp mopping and wiping as well as vacuuming. Pay special attention to areas where children regularly play, eat, and sleep.
  • On windy days, close windows that face the site. Regularly clean window wells with a damp sponge.
  • If you have a garden, thoroughly wash or peel produce before eating. Some plants (usually leafy vegetables) may absorb metals (especially cadmium). Adding lime to the soil, or growing plants which are less likely to absorb metals, can reduce exposure.
  • Bare soil should be re-seeded or covered, particularly if wind erosion is a problem.
  • Refrain from hunting game found on or near the site.