THE NEWS from the Kepone front is mixed. While no way has yet been found to destroy or neutralize the poisonous effects of the pesticide on land or in the water, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia have won an important battle in the war against Kepone by discovering an antidote to its ravages in human beings. About 75 persons had been afflicted before the Life Science Products plant in Hopewell, Va., was shut down in 1975. Because the pesticide persists in human systems, many victims continued to suffer tremors, suffering, anxiety, sterility and other disabling effects. Now the Virginia doctors have found that a drug named cholestyramine accelerates the bodys elimination of Kepone. Of 22 victims treated, only 8 retained detectable traces of Kepone, and their remaining symptoms, if any, wer "mild."
This is a real breakthrough. It can end years of suffering for the afflicted workers and families, and may also suggest a way to detoxify people poisoned by other strong, stubborn pesticides. Yet cholestyramine does not destroy Kepone; it merely helps eliminate it from human sytems. So a large part of the Kepone disaster remains to be dealt with somehow.
One problem is how to incinerate over 1.5 million gallons of Kepone-laden sludge left in Hopewell. State officials had hoped to burn the stuff at sea, but negotiations with a Dutch company fell through. A consultant has recommended incineration in Hopewell, at a $4.6-million cost, but many residents are understandably apprehensive about that.
The contamination of the James River, its tributaries and marine life will be even harder to relieve. Kepone - like mercury, DDT and other toxins - does not break down rapidly of its accord, but lingers and accumulates in crabs and many species of finfish exposed to it. A forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency report will sum up what researchers have learned so far about the biological processes involved, the feasibility and costs of "conventional" approaches for cleanup, such as dredging the most contaminated waters, and more exotic techniques. But nobody is yet prepared to say how the fish and waters might best be purified, at what price - or how great and long-lasting the damage might be if nothing is done.
State, federal and private experts have spent uncounted hours wrestling with the problems. Allied Chemical Corp., which developed Kepone and contracted with Life Sciences, has paid $5 million in fines for polluting, set up an $8-million environmental study fund, reached settlements with kepone victims and paid $5.25 million to the state to cover research and cleanup costs so far. And clearly all of that is just the start. Unless someone can find something like a cholestyramine treatment for crabs and fish, the public and the company may have to pay horrendous cleanup costs, or possibly conclude that the environmental damage can't be fixed at all. It is a staggering and all-too-real example of what can happen when people make poisons carelessly.