Recently an article discussing 100 people being diagnosed with cancer from the same New Jersey high school came across my desk. It was sent to me by multiple people who were all shocked and horrified by the fact that so many members of a single community suffered from such serious conditions from a Superfund Site shut down many years ago.
Superfund Sites Remain a Problem After Polluters Leave
The New Jersey case involved a site— the Middlesex Sampling Plant— that was primarily used to sample, store, test, and transfer ores containing uranium, thorium, and beryllium from 1943 to 1967. Radioactive materials from the site are all known to cause cancer and other serious illnesses. Cleanup began at the site in the 1980s and tons of contaminated soil and other materials were removed. However, additional remedial efforts continue today and the site is still considered a Superfund Site. Despite the fact that the site’s utility ended in 1967, the impact continues.
1333 Federal Superfund Sites Exist in this Country Today
While upsetting, the article and the environmental disaster discussed, did not shock me. Instead, it was all too familiar. Around this country, there are thousands of communities impacted by environmental conditions created by industrial polluters who are currently operating or operated years ago and left their wastes uncontained. The Middlesex Sampling Plant is just one of 1333 sites currently on the National Priorities List (NPL) and there are many more state superfunds sites.
The NPL is a list of sites of national priority among the known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants throughout the United States. These sites range from the infamous toxic waste dump at Love Canal to lesser known sites sprinkled across the country. A quick look at the map view of Superfund Sites shows that environmental disasters are currently impacting most of the country: https://epa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=33cebcdfdd1b4c3a8b51d416956c41f1
Superfund Sites Put Communities at Risk
Each of these superfund sites presents its own set of issues for the communities nearby. Some are contaminated with radioactive materials like the Middlesex Sampling Plant, others with PCBs or Dioxins known to cause serious health problems, including cancer. However, when health problems develop within a nearby community, the residents are often told that there is no reason to believe offsite contamination is present or that they have been exposed.
The problem for the impacted neighbors is that polluters and sometimes regulators refuse to test homes near superfunds sites. By putting their head in the sand, corporate polluters and regulators get to say “There is no evidence of offsite impact.” However, working with these sites has shown us that chemical contaminants do not stop at the fence line.
Environmental testing is not cheap. Most individuals cannot afford to do a comprehensive evaluation to determine if there home has been impacted by a superfund site. In some situations, community testing may be necessary to help determine the source and scope of impact. It should be up to the polluters to show the boundaries of their contamination, not impacted communities. In a world where we are all taught to clean up after ourselves as children, polluters often seek to conceal their actions and avoid liability.
Communities Must Remain Vigilant
With each story of a cancer cluster from industrial activities, there are many more that don’t make the news. Connections haven’t been made yet in some, while others are actively being litigated. So, while the recent New Jersey story does not shock me, it does remind me that we need to remain vigilant. We need to pay attention to what’s going on in our communities. We need to fight for answers when we believe something is wrong. Most of all, we need to make sure that polluters are held responsible for cleaning up their own mess so we can enjoy healthy lives without being exposed to their pollutants.