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Of landfills, parks, PCBs and people (and cancer clusters)

Ruth Haag • Jul 30, 2013 at 3:00 PM

The interesting part of working in the hazardous waste field is the need to solve mysteries. Often, the environmental scientist arrives on a site years after the people who put the waste on the site have left. All that anyone knows is that some waste is there, and that it may be contaminating soil, groundwater and people. No one knows what the waste is, or exactly where it is.

What the environmental scientist does is start looking around, comparing what they are seeing with what they have seen at other sites or in other cities. It obviously helps to have been in the industry for a few decades, the more sites one has seen the better they are at determining where the contamination is.

A major part of solving the mystery is to understand the habits of people. My husband Bob likes to tell a story of some environmental scientists standing on a site trying to decide where to sample, when a man walks out of the factory next door, comes to the site and dumps a drum full of waste! That made the sampling determination a lot easier.

At some point people become aware of the environmental scientist asking questions and they start to volunteer things. On large contaminated industrial sites that have been shut down, it is often the maintenance person who is still at the site who answers most of the questions. Unfortunately, this person often is suffering from cancer.

The more public the problem is and the more people involved, the more confused the process appears to be. People start to get excited about each test result. If the environmental scientist isn’t careful, people start to come to inaccurate conclusions. People for instance equate a large number of test samples taken for more certainty in the conclusion. We have seen some sites where the environmental scientist has taken over 100 samples, but all in the wrong place. Volume does not equal accuracy.

So, what would I be looking for in Clyde to determine what is causing the cancer cluster? First, I would not be looking at parks. The cancer cluster is fairly recent, so a park that has been played in since 1950 is not a likely candidate, to me. I would also not be looking at old landfills. While old landfills are not good things, every town has some but every town does not have a cancer cluster. For example in Sandusky, there is an old landfill at the Pipe Creek boat launch, one under the Sandusky Plaza, one near to Old Railroad Road and a sort of a landfill under Washington Park, but Sandusky does not have a childhood cancer cluster. So to a reasonable degree of professional certainty, I would not be looking at sites that are either a park or an old landfill.

Next, I would not be too excited about test results showing PCBs. PCBs are known to cause cancer in laboratory animals, but then so is money when it is inserted under animal’s skins. PCBs in high doses cause a condition called chloracne, and when ingested in large quantities, may cause slower cognitive development in children, but they are not generally associated with cancer in humans. PCBs are widely found at low concentrations.

In most areas that I have seen with a cancer cluster, everyone in the cluster has the same type of cancer. In Clyde, while a majority of the cancers involve the nervous system, there are a variety of other cancers. I would be looking for a contamination source with a variety of contaminants.

So, I would be looking for something that Clyde has that other cities in the area don’t have. Because other cities don’t have a childhood cancer cluster, but they do have landfills, parks on landfills and PCBs.

What Clyde does have that other cities in the area don’t is a facility that takes in hazardous waste and injects it into deep wells.

The Ohio Department of Health, Sandusky County Health Department and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Progress Report named “Childhood Cancers among Residents in Eastern Sandusky County,” dated October 30, 2009 states “In the 1970’s and early 1980’s several of the [hazardous waste deep well] injection wells experienced problems due to their design and construction. It was estimated that approximately 45,000,000 to 65,000,000 gallons of waste was injected into the containment interval.” The containment interval is the interval of rock above the injection interval. The injection interval is where the waste is supposed to be placed; the containment interval is not.

The mystery to me now is why no one talks about this.

For a more detailed version of this column, with pictures, go to this link to the December 2012 City of Sandusky Brownfield Committee Meeting.

Below is the 2009 study that I cited.

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