Danvers, Massachusetts is a sleepy New England town with squat Cape Cod houses on lush lawns and historical sites that date back to the colonial era. The Danvers River and its tributaries pierce the town like a silver fork. If you walked here between the crystal waters and the beech trees, you might never know that you aren’t far from a major environmental cleanup, a disused tannery that contaminated both soil and water with arsenic, heavy metals, and asbestos. Next to these industrial waste sites, new condominiums are sprouting up and families are moving in, perhaps not even fully aware of the poisons next door.
For over 80 years the Creese and Cook Tannery operated at multiple locations along the Crane River, one of the 3 tributaries leading into the Danvers. After filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1982, the corporation left waste dumps, sludge lagoons, and debris piles containing asbestos to languish for decades.
Finally in 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in and named the former tannery a “Superfund,” the term used for the organization’s priority cleanup sites.
According to Dr. James Siow of Australia’s National Institute of Integrative Medicine, pollution from Superfund sites are one of the primary ways that harmful man-made toxins enter the human body, and there are thousands of them all around the country – and the world. The EPA has yet to rate the danger for citizens in Danvers, Massachusetts, but as researchers learn more about the persistence of many toxins in the human body, there may be concerns not just for Danvers residents, but for all of us.
All of the Pollution Hidden in Your Blood
It is hard to generalize about how the toxins in industrial waste will affect human health. There are thousands of heavy metals, minerals, and synthetic compounds that are used in industry and can all become potential pollutants. However, we do know that many of these toxins can remain in the body, building up in organs such as the liver or in fatty tissue, and some can even be passed down to developing children in their mother’s womb.
In a study spearheaded by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), blood analyzed from newborn’s umbilical cords revealed 287 known toxins. This included chemicals used in fast food packaging, stain repellants, and even the production of TEFLON.
Some of the chemicals tested in the EWG study can also be found at the Superfund site in Danvers. These include mercury, a heavy metal that can damage brain and neurological function, and various dioxins, a broad class of chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses.
But you don’t have to live near a major toxic waste dump or cleanup site to be exposed to these toxins. Mercury can be released in the air from coal-fired power plants and most exposure to polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), a dioxin-like chemical, comes from eating contaminated food after the chemical, which used to be found in power transformers, leeches into the environment.
PCBs are a particularly worrying chemical because even though they were banned in the U.S. in 1979, they are still contaminating parts of the country, and can accumulate in the liver, fatty tissue and even in breast milk where they can be passed down to children. If enough of the residue builds up in the body over years, it can damage the immune and digestive systems, as well as increase rate of cancer.
Danger in the Air
But PCBs are not the only substance that can take years to reveal their ugly effects. Asbestos debris was also found at the Superfund site in Danvers.
Unlike many other toxins, including mercury and PCBs, there is no safe level of asbestos. This is because while other chemicals cause harm either by being exposed to a large amount at once or by small amounts building up in the body over time, asbestos causes harm when a tiny fiber becomes lodged in the tissue around the lungs or other internal organs. Even inhaling one asbestos fiber can cause increased tumor rates in the area the fiber pierces.
The asbestos debris in Danvers was left after some buildings on the Creese and Cook Tannery were demolished. Asbestos is particularly dangerous after demolition because dust can become airborne, which is most typically how it enters the human body. It is shameful that it took decades for anything to be done.
Who Is Taking Care of the Mess?
Luckily, many harmful substances, like PCBs, are already banned in the U.S. Others, like asbestos and mercury, are heavily regulated. Many government agencies take part in monitoring environmental waste, performing scientific studies about chemical effects, and providing public education about toxin safety. Unfortunately, these agencies are sometimes caught in political battles that have nothing to do with the valuable service they perform.
For instance, why did it take so long for the EPA to clean up the Creese and Cook Tannery in Danvers?
The Superfund program was created in 1980 by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which gave the EPA the power to force polluters to clean up toxic sites that they created. It also addressed the problem of polluted areas where no responsible party could be found or were created by a company that no longer exists. Such sites make up about half of the nearly 1,300 toxic locations around the country.
These so-called “orphaned” sites were cleaned up by the federal government using funds from a tax on the oil and chemical industries. However in 1995, Congress allowed this tax to expire, and by 2003, the money raised by this tax was gone for good. Revenue from income tax had to be used instead to cover cleanup costs, but this lower income source was a significant blow to the EPA’s efficiency. In 1999, for instance, the EPA cleaned up 89 orphaned sites, but in 2009, they only managed 19.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, president Obama had promised to restore the tax on oil and chemical companies and give the EPA back its teeth. However, in the Republican-controlled House, the bill never even made it past committee.
Doing More with Prevention
Cleaning up environmental pollution is an important part of keeping all of our bodies free from toxic chemicals. But some people, like the aforementioned Dr. Siow, wonder if governments are doing enough to study the impact toxins have on diseases. Knowledge gained from long-term health studies could affect what chemicals remain legal, how much they are regulated, and what the procedures should be for safe disposal.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors more than 250 chemicals in the blood of U.S. citizens to determine the long term health effects of common, everyday chemicals. Which sounds like a good start – that is until you realize that there are in fact over 80,000 chemicals approved for use in the U.S. Even for many chemicals that are studied, long-term data is lagging behind their use.
It is wonderful that the EPA stepped up to the plate to protect citizens in Danvers. But what is just as important is preventing harmful toxins from entering the environment, so they never contaminate our neighborhoods to begin with.