A U.S. study has found an unusually high incidence of gastrointestinal disease in a small U.S. town located downstream from a Teck smelter in Trail, B.C.

Northport, Wash., is a small community of 300 people, located 35 kilometres downstream from Teck’s Trail operations — one of the biggest lead and zinc smelters in the world.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have now confirmed Northport residents have 10 to 15 times the normal rate of diseases such as colitis and Crohn’s disease, which have symptoms including abdominal pain and diarrhea.

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Teck’s Trail smelter is one of the biggest lead and zinc smelters in the world. (Trail Daily Times/Canadian Press)

"It’s a relief to have someone in a knowledgeable situation say something is going on here that is not normal," says Northport resident Joe Wickman.

The Harvard study has ruled out a genetic connection, as few of the Northport victims are related.

Researchers are now seeking funding to establish whether environmental toxins are behind the high rate of Crohn’s disease and colitis.

Teck says it has spent millions of dollars reducing pollution from its Trail smelter, and there is no established link between environmental factors and disease rates for Crohn’s and colitis.

"We need to find out what is really going and we need to have clear answers here," says company spokesperson Dave Godlewski.

For generations, locals have complained they've been sickened by pollution from the smelter across the border.

Jamie Paparich, whose father and aunt had Crohn's disease, has lobbied the medical community to get involved for years.

"When I stumbled upon all the records and research about Teck, and learned all the years and decades of pollution they had put into the river and air, it just became so obvious that this was the common denominator this was the link," says Paparich.

He now wants action from Teck.

"They can stop maybe shuffling their feet on some of this and go forward on areas they know they can make a difference now," Paparich said.

With files from CBC's Bob Keating