Women who worked at the Bunker Hill Mine in the 1970s now start menopause early and are more likely to have dangerously brittle bones.
Those women also report more cases of hypertension, anemia and arthritis, yet they don’t suffer kidney disease - often linked to lead poisoning - in greater numbers than other women.
These are the results of a long-awaited two-year study of female former smelter employees that was unveiled Wednesday night by the U.S. Public Health Service.
The study is the first to examine actual health problems faced by women who worked at the Silver Valley mine. It also is among a mere handful of studies nationwide examining the health impacts of lead exposure on women.
Previous studies have documented high lead exposure but never have detailed what trouble it may have caused.
Investigators ran urine and blood tests on 108 former workers to find any bone and kidney abnormalities and tested a group of Spokane women for comparison.
The results indicate lead exposure “may interfere with the formation of bone,” said Virginia Lee, the researcher who conducted the study for the federal Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry.
Menopausal women get osteoporosis - brittle bones - faster than men. But former smelter workers appear to get the disorder sooner and with greater frequency even than other women.
But beyond bone problems, the study cannot definitively say how many of the ex-workers’ aches and pains are linked to lead.
In interviews with researchers, former workers indicated they suffer higher rates of dozens of problems - from anemia to bronchitis to gallbladder and stomach disorders. But Lee acknowledged those results are less reliable because they weren’t verified.
The results surprised Sylvia Sjogren, 59, who once worked at the smelter.
The tests indicated that “we were a lot healthier than we thought we were,” said Sjogren, who long has related a variety of kidney and back trouble to lead exposure.
The examination showed her bone density - an indicator of osteoporosis - and blood are normal.
“This isn’t right,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of problems.”