COLONIE -- Ph.D. student Nicholas Lloyd traveled from England to a dusty patch off Central Avenue last summer hunting for terribly small pieces of New York's polluted military-industrial past.
Used for the first time on a large scale in the 1991 Gulf War, depleted uranium weapons have been blamed for sickening soldiers exposed to them -- even though the military says the danger is limited.
Research by Lloyd and others shows that Albany-area residents may have been exposed for decades before the first shot was ever fired.
While substantial questions remain about depleted uranium's effect on humans, Lloyd and others suspect Colonie, home to a long-demolished munitions plant, may be a good place to look.
"This is a natural laboratory here to understand that problem," said John G. Arnason, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University at Albany.
"There are very few places in the world where you can do this other than here," said Arnason, who also has studied contamination from the factory operated by Houston-based NL Industries, formerly the National Lead Co. "Not only did you have the plant here that was doing the polluting, but you had a population, unfortunately, that was exposed to it."
Lloyd's research, in cooperation with the British Geological Survey, is not a health study. But his preliminary results show that nearly a quarter-century after NL's Central Avenue plant closed, some of the uranium oxide particles it spewed over surrounding neighborhoods remains -- in the soil and in homes. Some linger, he said, in a form that could be inhaled -- a state quite different from uranium that exists naturally in the air, soil and water.
"It spread further and it stayed around decades longer than anyone thought," said Anne Rabe, co-chairwoman of Community Concerned About NL Industries.
Lloyd discovered that depleted uranium contamination was detected as far as 3.5 miles from the plant and that uranium oxide particles found closer to it are comparable to those emitted by depleted uranium weapons.
The primary concern is not direct radiation. Instead, the risk stems from inhaling the particles, formed when the depleted uranium is burned and combines with oxygen. From the lungs, they can be absorbed into the blood and travel to the kidneys.
In the 1960s and '70s, the factory just west of city limits, which made armor-piercing bullets and counterweights, is believed to have emitted as much as five tons of uranium into the environment.
A byproduct of the manufacture of nuclear fuel, depleted uranium in weapons burns extremely hot and sprays dust. The weapons have been blamed for a range of ailments, including maladies known collectively as Gulf War syndrome.
But research on the dust's health effects on humans has been limited. The federal government has studied 80 military personnel exposed to depleted uranium through friendly fire during the Gulf War and detected elevated levels of uranium in their urine but found no kidney damage or other uranium-related health problems, according to the Pentagon. The federal Centers for Disease Control has said exposure to high levels of depleted uranium is "not known to cause cancer."
But neighbors and workers at the plant who were potentially exposed to the dust have, for years, blamed the smoke belched from its stacks for sickness and death among them. They have sought a block-by-block health study, and Lloyd believes his research could provide a baseline for that.
The state Health Department has conducted several studies of NL pollution, including comparing lead levels in the blood of children who live near the plant to those who don't. None of the studies conclusively linked the pollution to illness, said department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.
Lloyd, 28, a student at the University of Leicester, set out to study how the molecules known as uranium oxide -- some small enough to travel to the deepest parts of human lungs -- behave in the environment.
Working with Arnason and local volunteers, Lloyd took more than 200 samples of soil that had been exposed to the elements -- some of it on land adjacent to the Thruway and Northway -- as well as dust from sheltered areas in homes and commercial buildings.
Of those samples taken from soil already decontaminated by the Army Corps of Engineers, none of the concentrations he detected exceed safety standards. The Army Corps is the federal agency charged with cleaning up the 12-acre site where all the company's buildings were demolished. The two-decade federal project is expected to conclude this summer with a price tag in excess of $175 million.
Rabe and others are eager for information on the concentrations of uranium detected inside homes -- data Lloyd has yet to tabulate.
Using mass spectrometry, Lloyd was able to prove the presence of depleted uranium. Finding traces of depleted uranium up to 3.5 miles away was not surprising, said Arnason, after it was revealed in the 1990s that air filters at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna and the Kesselring Site nuclear facility in Milton detected contamination from NL Industries some 25 miles away.
Arnason, who has studied uranium contamination around the nearby Patroon Creek, said he has tried for years to get funding for the kind of research Lloyd and his colleagues are doing.
"I find it ironic that the Brits came over here to study it," Arnason said of the Colonie site. "There are no agencies here that are specifically funding nondefense-related research on depleted uranium."
Lloyd plans to submit his work for peer review next year and hopes it will help move understanding of depleted uranium past speculation.
"I think that probably too much has been said in the media that isn't based on hard evidence," he said. "I don't want to add to that."
© 2007 The Times Union