Fluoride Action Network

Sick Cows, Human Fears in Maryland County

Source: The Washington Post | August 7th, 1977 | By Martha Raver
Location: United States, Maryland
Industry type: Aluminum Industry

BUCKEYSTOWN, Md. – Five years ago, Pat Zimmerman, a husky woman in broken down galoshes and wornout blue jeans, opened her barn door to let her prize Holsteins in for milking. Only a few of the cows stood at the door. The rest stood bawling at the end of the lane. Pat went out to drive them in, something few dairy farmers ever have to do.

“They walked sideways like they couldn’t get coordination. I had one cow that was gorgeous. She couldn’t seem to see the lane,” Pat recalled.

The cows recovered within a day or two. Their behavior was a short-lived mystery that most farmers soon would have forgotten.

But in the lower Monocacy Valley of Frederick County, the episode was but the first of an increasingly alarming series of events. Today, Pat and her neighbors fear that their herds, their crops, air, soil and their own bodies are being poisoned by fluoride.

The Eastalco Aluminum Co., owned by a consortium of international metal manufacturers, says that fluoride released from its Buckeystown plant is not enough to harm anything. The aluminum reduction plant, located in the center of this dairy community, emits 500 pounds of fluoride a day. Eastalco announced this spring that it plans to increase its production by 50 per cent. A third potline, a system of 240 aluminum furnaces, would add another 350 pounds of fluoride to Eastalco’s daily emissions.

Some of the farmers believe the additional fluoride will accelerate the defoliation of plants and the crippling of cows to the point where farming will be financially unfeasible.

“You’re going to have more emissions. Nobody’s denying that,” said Eastalco’s spokesman, Dr. John Carnochan. “The question is, is it enough to hurt anybody? Our answer is no.”

Remarkably, although fluoride has been recognized since the 1930s as a poison, nobody knows what amounts are completely safe or what amounts cause irreparable damage. Fluoride is the most reactive element known. It bonds readily with oxygen, water and other elements and compounds. Its properties are affected by weather and the chemical makeup of various plants and animals in the environment. Scientific studies to date are limited and subject to heated debate.

The issue in Buckeystown is further complicated by pollutants emitted by two other nearby industries. The Potomac Electric Power Company’s coal-burning generating plant just south of Buckeystown and the Alpha Portland Cement plant nearby emit sulphur dioxide, nitrogen and small amounts of fluoride. Mixed on the winds with Eastalco fluorides, these pollutants add to the concerns of some of the farmers.

“There’s something out here,” Pat Zimmerman said. “I’m too dumb to known what it is. But they have no right putting something in the air that will hurt my cows or hurt a child or me or my trees.”

Three miles from Pat’s farm, a distant cousin, William Zimmerman, “Mr. Billy” to all who meet him, also worries about pollution. Mr. Billy selected a sleek, fat, 4-year-old from his herd recently and pried open her mouth. The eight teeth on a cow’s lower jaw are usually as large as scrabble blocks, gleaming white and square. This cow’s teeth were yellowed. Two were pitted with black spots. Every tooth was worn down to half its normal size. Inside, the teeth were streaked with yellow, brown and black.

“I’ve opened up a thousand cows’ mouths and given them medicine. But I’ve never seen what I’ve seen over in my barn. I’m blue about it. I’m blue,” Mr. Billy said.

Veterinarians at the University of Maryland School of Agriculture estimate that some of Mr. Billy’s cows have more than 3,000 parts per million of fluoride in their teeth. On a scale of 1 to 5,000, 3,000 ppm is considered the threshold for fluoride poisoning, according to Maryland state standards. Although the evaluations are based only on visual examinations, the veterinarians have rated Mr. Billy’s cows with counts as precise as 2,999 ppm.

A Vital Substance

Trace amounts of fluoride are added to many toothpastes and municipal water supplies to harden human teeth against cavities. In large amounts, however, fluoride has been known to cripple and kill animals. In 1972, the U.S. Agriculture Department reported that fluoride has caused more worldwide damage to domestic animals than any other pollutant.

Fluoride is essential to the production process in steel mills and in the 35 aluminum reduction plants in the United States. It is also released as a byproduct by phosphate fertilizer processors, brick and tile manufacturers and coal-burning operations.

Cloaked by other, better-known pollutants such as sulphur, fluoride received little notice until the 1950s when aluminum industries flocked to the Pacific Northwest and the cheap electricity produced along the Columbia River. In aluminum production, fluoride is the primary pollutant and can be easily identified.

Suits for damage caused by fluoride pollution are common wherever aluminum companies have located. Eighteen farmers near Eastalco’s older sister plant, Intalco Aluminum in Ferndale, Wash., have won awards of $2.5 million for fluoride damage to their herds and crops. The Martin Marietta Company in The Dalles, Ore., has paid over $3 million to orchard owners for defoliated trees and fruit that would not ripen properly.

The Buckeystown farmers have not yet considered legal suit against Eastalco. Barely organized, six families who farm their own land have just begun to speak out publicly. Groping for answers in the political process, these farmers find themselves in an unusual position: they must prove damage by Eastalco, but they have also had to call into question the state and federal agencies that are supposed to be protecting the environment.

Concerned about damage to their agricultural industries, individual states have established limits on the amount of fluoride which may be present in plants, animal tissue and air. Maryland established such standards and began tests in 1970 when Eastalco first opened.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered the field last year when it established limits on direct emissions of fluoride from new aluminum plants. The Clean Air Act of 1970 also empowers EPA to monitor air quality and the environment for any potential hazard to human health. But EPA deliberately narrowed its scope concerning fluoride, according to George Walsh, assistant director of EPA’s emission standards division.

To date, research concerning fluorides indicates there is little hazard to human health from aluminum plant emissions, Walsh said. That claim is disputed by a few independent researchers.

EPA, Walsh pointed out, believes questions of siting plants are matters for the states, not the federal government. The Clean Air Act makes it a federal priority, however, to standardize air pollution control equipment in all new industry. Under that mandate, the EPA prohibits any new or expanded aluminum plant from emitting more than 2 pounds of fluoride per ton of aluminum produced.

The 2-pound standard, now being challenged in court by Kaiser and Alcoa, is based on the EPA’s study of the best pollution control technologies in the world and the costs of such equipment to the industry.

Like the state standards on fluoride presence in air, plants and animals, however, the 2-pound limit is debatable.

“It’s largely a matter of opinion. There’s no specific level that can be ascertained in which you could say this is safe and above that it’s not safe,” one EPA spokesman said.

Based on pound-per-ton ratios, the EPA limits on emission ignore the question of how many pounds will harm the environment. As long as Eastalco emits no more than 2 pounds of fluoride per ton of aluminum, it makes no difference to EPA whether the plant emits 500 lbs. or expands production and emits 750 lbs. per day.

An expanding industry such as Eastalco must submit engineering design data to the EPA to prove – at least on paper – that it can meet the emission standards. But no actual tests of emissions are necessary.

“That’s sort of a brinkmanship game,” said Robert Rauch of the Environmental Defense Fund. “All we can do is bank on the fact that they won’t build what they can’t meet.”


Most of the local farmers had never heard of fluoride when Eastalco opened the largest aluminum plant in the Mid-Atlantic states seven years ago. In the last four years, however, herds within a two-mile radius of the plant have been plagued with intermittent fever, fits of coughing, and lameness. On some farms, at least two or three cows have died of slow deterioration and starvation. The hooves of some cows are elongated and curved like grotesque elf shoes.

The cows crawl on their knees when they go lame. A calf, born in Pat Zimmerman’s barn last fall, crawled for three days, desperate to stand and nurse. It died of exhaustion.

Pat estimates she has lost $50,000 in reduced milk production, veterinarian bills and the loss of breeding cows worth $1,500 to $2,000 apiece.

Half the farmers involved complain that it is difficult to breed their animals. Six of Austin Putman’s cows aborted just before they reached full term this spring.

In recent months, members of all six farm families and at least a dozen of their non-farm neighbors have also noticed changes in their own health. They complain of dizzy spells, nausea, arthritic pains and muscle aches, burning eyes, sore throats and fatigue. Some develop small brown spots on their limbs.

Dr. George Waldbott, an allergy specialist in Michigan, has studied fluoride’s effect on humans since the chemical was first added to the Detroit water supply 20 years ago. At Pat Zimmerman’s request, Waldbott examined 10 Buckeystown residents lsat year for possible fluoride poisoning.

“Of those, I found five whom I considered poisoned,” Waldbott said.

The spots are caused by fluoride inflammation of the capillaries, he said, while the other complaints are typical of mild fluorosis.

In later stages, fluoride poisoning causes severe headaches, extreme thirst and a lethargy that finally incapacitates the victim. Following Waldbott’s visit, Pat Zimmerman and a few other farmers have read widely about fluoride and are aware of the potential dangers they face. But they have concentrated their political efforts on the more evident sickness in their herds. “We haven’t died yet. We’re not in bed yet. But in the cows, you see a terrific change,” Pat said.

There is no cure for fluorosis, Waldbott said, but to move away from the source of pollution. The Buckeystown farmers have no intention of leaving the farms they have held for generations. This spring, they called on the Maryland Health Department and EPA to investigate Eastalco’s fluoride emissions before any permit for a third potline is granted.

After hearing the farmers, two of the five Frederick County commissioners proposed that the contry petition the state to withhold a permit until they complete their own study of Eastalco’s emissions.

The issue has divided Frederick County’s leadership. Two county commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce and the county’s only daily newspaper, the Frederick News-Post, applauded the 300 new jobs and the annual half million dollar increase in tax revenues the expansion will bring. This side recently won a majority in the county commission and quashed the independent study.

Commissioner Edgar Virts, a dairy farmer himself, questioned Eastalco first for financial reasons. The county has invested $26 million in a sewage system along the Ballenger Creek near Buckeystown. If fluoride is contaminating the area, Virts said, housing development may not occur and the investment will be wasted.

But Virts won support from a colleague and from the Frederick County Farm Bureau, the largest on the East Coast, with questions rather than facts. How much fluoride is really coming from Eastalco? he asks.

“You don’t have any assurance right now that it’s going to be 900 pounds of fluoride every day,” he said. “You don’t have any reason to know whether it’s 1,900 pounds. You don’t have any way at all.”

Monitoring the Air

Air in the Buckeystown area is monitored year-round by the Maryland Bureau of Air Quality and Noise Control. On an $84,000 contract with Eastalco, the Maryland Department of Agriculture regularly checks plant foliage and dairy herds near the plant for fluorides. Last summer, doctors hired by the Frederick County Department of Health checked 33 residents of the area for fluoride poisoning.

These scientists have never reported a case in which fluoride caused illness to people or the death of a cow. But, according to George P. Ferreri, director of the air quality bureau, state standards were exceeded and damage did occur on one farm. Nine of 48 cows on the Austin Wiles farm were recommended for slaughter last year when state veterinarians found high counts of fluoride and severe deterioration in their teeth. Damage has not occurred on any other farm, Ferreri said.

The state’s claims were challenged this spring by Dr. Clancy Gordon, director of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Laboratory. Gordon entered the case at Pat Zimmerman’s request, charging no fee.

Gordon is an acknowledged expert in the study of fluorides and their effect on plants and animals. “I doubt if you would find anybody else who’s done as much study of the phenomenon as he has,” said Richard Ayres, an air pollution specialist with the National Resources Defense Council.

Gordon sampled over 100 trees, grasses, corn plants and ornamental shrubs on five farms surrounding Eastalco. He found levels of fluoride on all of the farms that were higher than those levels found in trees and forage near aluminum plants in Oregon, Montana and Washington.

Maryland’s standards for fluoride are “totally inadequate” to protect the environment, Gordon concluded. Instead, he said, “current Maryland fluoride standard for for cattle forage protects only the aluminum industries and will allow the Eastalco management to build their new potline without exceeding those standards.”

The Company’s Case

Eastalco’s plant is recognized, even by Gordon, as one of the cleanest aluminum plants in the world.

The $250 million facility is a gigantic complex of buildings centered around four potline warehouses. Each warehouse is 1,500 feet long – as long as five football fields. Each warehouse contains 120 electrolytic cells, 280-foot-long troughs in which alumina ore is heated electrically to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

A dual system of fabric bags, 16,000 of them, and water jet scrubbers captures fluorides released in an acrid white dust from potline cells and buildings. The system captures 95 per cent of the fluorides produced, Eastalco claims.

The Eastalco spokesman dismisses complaints about the fluorides which escape into the neighborhood. “Five hundred pounds a day. That’s 24 hours a day. And dispersed into millions of cubic feet of air a day. The federal government says you can have twice that not hurt anybody,” Carnochan said. “We’re putting gaseous matter and particulates [dust] into the air, but it only becomes a pollutant when it becomes harmful.”

Gordon reported finding fluoride on corn ranging from as little as 5 parts per million (ppm) in protected hollows to as much as 77 ppm in fields on high ridges overlooking Eastalco. Maryland’s standard for possible damage to forage is 40 ppm.

Gordon also said he found fluoride ranging as high as 200 ppm in hardwood trees, double the state’s standard for deciduous plants. Many of the trees facing the plant show signs of pollution damage, Gordon charged. If Eastalco expands, he argued, additional fluoride emissions are likely to increase defoliation of the protective canopy of trees and “fluoride levels will increase substantially in forage crops.”

Gordon criticized state testing procedures and fluoride analyses. State scientists were trained by the industry and have conducted no independent evaluation of testing methods or standards, he said. Forage tested by the state is washed and then mixed together before analysis. Some fluoride is lost in the washing. In addition, fluoride levels are averaged for each farm. Thus, danger spots of high concentrations, such as the 77 ppm Gordon found, cannot be identified for later study. Deciduous plants are never tested, he said.

Gordon has a sharp tongue. State employees who are “collecting corn silage and cow feed samples or performing fluoride analyses are either fraudently manipulating the sample analysis data, or they are totally incompetent, or possibly both,” he said.

Asking Questions

Gordon’s charges have emboldened the citizens of Frederick County to challenge Eastalco and the state’s claims that no damage exists.

For example, they ask why Eastalco bought the Austin Wiles farm last summer. The Eastalco explanation is this: Eastalco originally bought more than 1,200 acres of land around the factory and planted trees there to act as a buffer and capture much of the air-borne fluorides. The company, Carnochan said, wanted to add the Wiles farm to that buffer zone and simply bought it at the first opportunity.

Some Frederick County residents also want to know why all the state testing of the Wiles fields and herd stopped after the sale. If those cows sustained damage, Virts asks, what damage has occurred on the Charles Noffsinger farm where 14 cows show tooth damage as bad or worse than that found on the Wiles farm?

The farmers also ask whether the state findings on fluorides are being fully disclosed. Maryland’s secretary of agriculture, Y.D. Hance, assured dairymen Mehrle Main this spring that Buckeystown soils contain no more than 180 ppm of fluoride. Yet a study of soils by Hance’s own department found 1,255 ppm in Main’s soil. Plant yields are reduced when fluoride reaches 800 ppm, according to an article in the Journal of Occupational Medicine.

“Somebody’s lying,” Virts said.

Eastalco has denounced Gordon and his report. Each of the farmers’ complaints can be explained: the brown spots are bruise; the problems in the herds are brought about by poor management and normal viruses.

“A hearing before you will be technical, drawn out,” Eastalco president Harvey Armintrout warned Virts. “You will be totally confused.”

The state and the EPA will not rule on the Eastalco permits until September. Already, however, the Buckeystown farmers have won some concessions.

The Bureau of Air Quality announced recently that it is considering toughening the fluoride standard for cattle forage from 40 ppm to 35 ppm. The agency also agreed with Gordon that tests should be made of deciduous trees and that leaves should not be washed by the state agriculture department prior to testing.

At the EPA’s request, the National Environmental Research Laboratory in Oregon compared Gordon’s findings with Maryland state statistics. Both studies are incomplete, Dr. Ibrahim Hindawi concluded. But fluoride levels appear to be high enough to cause damage to vegetation, he said. And the expansion “is likely to result in greater fluoride contamination,” Hindawi reported.

Both Hindawi and the state noted the difficulty in setting any standards for fluoride. Various plant species react differently to fluoride. Vagaries of weather and pollutants from other nearby factories could intensify fluoride damage, Hindawi said.

In its study, the state questions whether it should set a standard that is a threshold for actual financial damage to animals or lower it to a threshold that will prohibit any damage at all.

“There’s a difference between injury and economic damage,” Ferreri said. “What we’re trying to do is a reach a happy medium that will allow the continued existence of the aluminum plant and the continued existence of the farm industry in that valley.”

“In retrospect, the aluminum industry should never have been put in that agricultural area,” Ferreri added.

Eastalco is expected to oppose the Bureau of Air Quality’s proposed new standards as too stringent. On the other hand, Gordon proposes a 20 ppm limit on fluoride in forage. With modern engineering, the EPA’s 2-pound limit on factory emissions, he contends, could be lowered to 0.8 pounds of fluoride.

The question remains whether fluoride emitted even at the existing 500-lb. a day rate from Eastalco will harm the Buckeystown environment. It will depend on the farmers’ political prowess whether the question is even addressed this summer by regulatory agencies.

* Raver is a free-lance writer based in western Maryland