Jefferson LaSala has fond memories of his hometown in Passaic County.
“In my mind, Pompton Lakes was the best place in the world to grow up, and I loved my friends. I loved my neighbors,” he said.
Yet there were indications early on that things weren’t as rosy as they appeared. Standing in front of his childhood home, where he continues to live more than 50 years later, he recalled a moment that’s still clearly etched in his mind.
[img-narrow:/assets/15/1208/1751]“So I’m five years old. That means it’s 1961,” he said. “I’m walking the curb right over here and trying to balance. And all of a sudden there was this explosion, and it knocked me off my feet, and I literally was standing in the roadway without having taken a step toward the roadway. I was startled like I can’t even begin to tell you. My brother told the story where he was in the house and thought the roof had blown off and was terrified to even go look upstairs because the explosion was so intense. This is what we lived with on a daily basis growing up.”
LaSala’s family home was just down from the road from a DuPont facility that made munitions and detonators for the military and the mining industry. In the years that followed, it would go on to produce clad coins for the federal government.
Chemicals seep into groundwater
Aside from the regular explosions, these industrial operations left behind a stew of toxic contaminants with multi-syllabic names like tetrachloroethylene and trichlorobenzene that seeped into the groundwater, were discharged into a nearby stream, and were buried in several on-site landfills.
It would be decades before a fuller understanding of the environmental damage came to light, and during that time nearby residents reported a rise in cancers and unusual illnesses that they believe are directly tied to the contamination. But despite several studies of the neighborhood over the years, state and federal health officials remain unconvinced of a definitive link.
The situation highlights the difficulties – and frustrated residents would say ineffectiveness – of regulatory authorities’ ability to track potential health impacts of such sites over the long term, as well as their reluctance to connect the dots between correlation and causality, except in the most extreme of cases.
Health officials say they’re relying on sound science rather than anecdotal evidence, and that there’s a high burden of proof they must meet before drawing conclusions. Environmental advocates and sick residents counter that the connections are too hard to ignore.
After DuPont’s facility closed in 1994 — following nearly a century of production — the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a health assessment that concluded the site was a “public health hazard” as a result of high levels of lead, mercury, and other contaminants in the surrounding soil and water.
The study cautioned residents against eating fish from the nearby Wanaque River and Acid Brook, and noted the existence of a vapor plume from contaminated groundwater that extended under a residential neighborhood.
Of particular concern are TCE and PCE, two industrial solvents used as cleaning agents in DuPont’s facility. The chemicals drained into a drywell and then seeped into an underground aquifer, which eventually migrated under 540 nearby homes, where thousands of people live. Both have been classified as probable human carcinogens .
But the 1994 assessment was limited in scope, and left many questions and concerns unanswered. It said that potential links between the contamination and dozens of health problems residents complained about were inconclusive, and that further monitoring was needed.
Higher-than-expected rates of kidney cancer among women and elevated rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among men among residents living above the plume were found in a 2009 follow-up study.
Authorities find no definite link
But because the cancer rates weren’t elevated across the board — for both genders – state and federal authorities concluded that the findings “do not support a causal association” with potential environmental exposures. Instead, they suggested other explanations such as tobacco use, occupational exposures, or pure chance. The study did say, however, that toxic gas coming up through people’s basements “cannot be ruled out as a potential cause” of the cancers.
During a community meeting held the week after the study’s release, many residents expressed frustration with its limited scope, which they felt failed to capture the full extent of the problem.
Why, for example, were some people with cancer who were potentially exposed to contaminants excluded from the study simply because they lived a few yards outside of the defined plume area?
The State Health Department responded that it had been given the task of examining cancer rates within the plume area but would consider a larger study at a later date.
What about other problems — ranging from frequent bloody noses to muscle pain to birth defects — that residents said they were experiencing?
Officials replied that such an investigation would require extensive resources. Besides, they argued, “the background rates of these non-cancer health problems in the general population are not known, which limits comparisons between
Pompton Lakes residents and other communities. As a result, there would be no way to determine if the adverse non-cancerous health outcomes in Pompton Lake are higher, the same, or lower than the general population.”
Why, people asked, weren’t former residents of the neighborhood who developed cancer after moving out of town included in the study?
“All epidemiologic study designs have inherent limitations,” the state responded. “In the study design utilized for this analysis, the limitations include the fact that it is impossible to assess the exact duration and level of exposure in individuals with cancer and in those who are cancer-free. Another issue is the inclusion of persons with cancer who were not exposed (e.g., people who moved into the community and were diagnosed with cancer shortly after re-locating and had little or no exposure to the site) and the exclusion of persons with cancer who were exposed (e.g., former residents who were exposed for years, moved to another community and were then diagnosed with cancer). In other words, population mobility cannot be accounted for in this analysis. Further, there may be people who were actually exposed but were misclassified as having not been exposed (e.g., people who work in but live outside the plume area).”
“There is no method for locating former residents who become ill after leaving the state and no longer have a connection to that community,” a health department spokeswoman added in an emailed statement. “This is a challenge for all states, not just New Jersey.”
Difficulties tracking long-term trends
These sorts of difficulties in tracking long-term health impacts are hardly unique, says Michael Gochfeld, an environmental toxicologist at the Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“That’s certainly a major challenge in environmental epidemiology, and particularly for cancer,” he explained. “There’s a latency period, and even the shortest latency period is on the order of five years. The longest legacy periods run 20-40 years. So if you are exposed as a young adult in your 20s, a disease might not develop until you’re 40 or 50, by which time you might not live anywhere near the site, you may not remember, and you may not know that there was even an issue with the site where you grew up.”
“It’s very difficult years later to ascribe particular diseases to particular exposures,” he added. “It’s easier looking forward to say ‘this exposure is not good for people, we know that people who have this exposure have higher levels of certain health consequences than others, and it’s not a good idea to allow such exposures to continue.’ It is much harder to look back and say these people got sick because they were exposed at Pompton or anywhere else thirty years ago.”
Jefferson LaSala understands that tracking down thousands of former residents to conduct a thorough health study could be difficult, years after the fact.
“A lot of this information is lost to history, which is unfortunate, and I think that is because of a deliberate, long-term process that this is drawn out for years to create exactly this situation,” he said, referring to the fact that the cleanup of the former DuPont site has dragged on for decades.
As for proving a link, “There’s a lot of illness here that we cannot directly connect to the contamination, but there’s an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence to the effect that that is what happened,” he said. “I’ve heard of a variety of cancers. There’s a lot of depression in this town. There’s a lot of neurological disorders. There’ve been birth defects.”
His own brother, he said, has had to undergo chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and a bone marrow transplant as a result of a condition he developed which, if not treated, could lead to an aggressive form of leukemia.
“He was told by a doctor at Sloan-Kettering that this directly related to growing up next to a manufacturing facility,” LaSala said.
“I know all my neighbors personally,” he added. “It’s horrible to see what has happened to this community. There are people that are getting ill here every day over this, and there are people that have already passed on because of the contamination.”
Promise of more action by state
Following the release of their 2009 study, state officials said they would work with the residents of Pompton Lakes to get more input and plan their next steps.
In early 2010, they created a community advisory group, and over the next few years conducted a Household Health Survey — focusing exclusively on people living directly above the plume — and a Community Health Profile looking at a range of illnesses in the entire borough.
Residents eagerly awaited the findings. After lengthy delays and pressure from community members, the results were finally released in March 2014, and they presented a mixed picture.
Mortality rates for all cancers combined were higher among the elderly than they were in six surrounding towns or the rest of the state, but about average for younger residents. There was no unusual frequency of birth defects, heart disease, diabetes, or liver disease, but there was an elevated level of asthma among children and an increased incidence of emergency room visits for “diseases of the nervous system and sense organs.”
Most importantly, officials concluded that while the number of cancer cases was above average, it wasn’t statistically significant enough to be meaningful. There simply weren’t a sufficient number of cancer cases to warrant concern that this was anything more than just a coincidental grouping of sick people living in the same vicinity.
“Therefore, NJDOH does not believe that a community-specific epidemiologic investigation is feasible in Pompton Lakes,” they said.
Just a coincidence?
The findings were disappointing but not particularly surprising for residents like Joseph Intintola Jr., who lives in the DuPont Village neighborhood, once home to hundreds of factory workers and their families. Out of more than 400 houses that were tested in the community, his was found to have the highest levels of both indoor and outdoor TCE and
PCE gases in the entire plume area.
In 2008 – five years after moving into town – Intintola had a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with what his doctor told him was a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’s now stage three and doesn’t think he’ll live another two years to see his 60th birthday. On top of that, his fiancé has cysts on her ovaries, breast, and a lymph node. His former tenant in his two-family house lost both her breasts, kidney, ovaries, and uterus to cancer. The woman who lived in his house before him also got ovarian cancer, as did her daughter. And her son had birth defects.
“You cannot say that four females in the same house, same address, with the same illnesses and diseases and cancers are not related to this chemical contamination,” he said. “It would be a total freak of nature!”
The reason Intintola wasn’t surprised that officials didn’t find more of a smoking gun is because he doesn’t think they looked hard enough.
He remembers when he was interviewed as part of the Household Health Survey.
“I thought that they were going to do a detailed questionnaire of ‘What type of cancer? When was I diagnosed? How long did I live in the plume? What were the test levels of my home for the exposure rate? What am I suffering from when I first was diagnosed versus today?’” he recalled. “I really thought that the survey that they asked on the phone was extremely vague. It was ‘Do you have cancer? Yes or no?’ ‘Do you take medication for your cancer? Yes or no?’ They did not go into particulars of what the people were actually suffering from to get a more clarified, documented cancer cluster. I think the state board of health did not want to cross the legal threshold of pointing the finger, saying, ‘Yes. DuPont’s contamination caused it.’”
Intintola also worried that since the survey was only conducted by telephone interview, many people may have been left out. Indeed, it seems quite possible that the results could have been skewed at least in part by the low participation rate. Out of 455 households in the plume that were eligible to participate in the survey, officials said that just 173 participated, 70 refused, and 212 – a full 47 percent — could not be reached, despite also being sent a postcard and several follow-up letters. Some residents criticized the process, saying that officials should have gone door-to-door instead.
State allegedly ‘ignores’ cancer clusters
To the Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel – who’s been involved with the DuPont site since the late 1980s – the situation in Pompton Lakes is similar to what he’s seen at numerous other contaminated sites around the state.
“I think the New Jersey Department of Health could not find a cancer cluster with a GPS and Siri,” he said. “They have for decades ignored health impacts to many communities all across New Jersey, where there’s been evidence of higher levels than normal of certain cancers. And sometimes cancers that are very much tied to the pollutants in the area.”
For example, he said, “In Millville years ago, there were high levels of bladder cancer. And they could be very clearly tied to a certain chemical that was used in the glass process. And at that time, there were a lot of glass manufacturers down there. And the state still would not say definitively that there was a problem, even though the scientific data said that this certain chemical led to high levels of bladder cancer.”
“We have people in Ringwood at the Ringwood Mine Superfund Site,” he continued. “And when you go to the D.O.H. and you ask them how in a community of 600 where there’s only a few births a year, two children were born with the same birth defect, the D.O.H. said it’s because it’s a poor community. Well they’re living on a Superfund site! Maybe that’s more of a connection?”
“You see these facilities that are poisoning these communities, and then you see the D.O.H. trying to downplay the problems or look the other way or try to come up with other rationalizations,” he added. “Like when we were talking about high levels of lung cancer in men in Jersey City where there’s chromium, and they were saying, ‘Well, there’s smoking going on, and it’s an urban area.’ But yet other urban areas that are similar do not have the same levels, and they don’t have chromium. They still have men that are smoking. So when the level is 17 percent higher for men in
Jersey City for lung cancer than a similar community like Newark, there’s got to be a reason, and maybe the reason is that chromium. There’s a direct tie, and yet the state does not want to say anything more than, ‘Well, there’s a slight elevation, and there should be a concern.’ I see it time and time again.”
[related]In a statement, state health officials noted that “carefully designed epidemiological studies require a sufficient number of cases to have enough statistical power to detect a causal association, if one exists.”
Beyond that, they cited their past involvement addressing the Pompton Lakes situation, performing several analyses, participating in public meetings, and attending more than a dozen health community advisory group meetings. The department said it will “continue dialogue as needed to address health questions and concerns of the community.”
Meanwhile, ownership and liability for the 570-acre site was transferred last summer to a DuPont spin-off company called Chemours. That firm has yet to finalize details of the full cleanup plan, but spokesman Robin Ollis Stemple touted the remedial actions that have already taken place at 30 on-site and off-site locations to address the contamination. The company is making progress, he said, on solutions to address polluted groundwater, contaminated soil, and the dredging of Pompton Lake, as well as ongoing efforts to deal with air quality problems by installing vapor mitigation systems at nearby homes and other properties.
“We are committed to providing a result that is protective of people and the environment and returning the property to
beneficial use for the community,” he said.
That’s little consolation to Jefferson LaSala, who – like many Pompton Lakes residents – feels that this is long overdue.
“We are the victims in this, and we’re tired of it,” he said. “We’re just frustrated beyond belief. We don’t want our town to be in the news. We don’t want our properties to be devalued. We don’t want to be in conflict with our neighbors. This was a beautiful, peaceful community for many, many years. Part of that peace came out of just not knowing. Ignorance is bliss. We simply did not know the extent of what was happening. And so people grew up here happy, and they loved the town, and we still do. I mean I still live here because I love the town, but at the same time, it’s getting to the point that it’s too much stress.”
This story is part of Dirty Little Secrets, a series investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy. Participating news partners include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today, and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The collaboration is facilitated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State and support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to CIR.