Probably closer than many know: According to the Center for Public Integrity, nearly half of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of EPA’s 1300 Superfund sites, and as many as half a million children attend schools within half a mile of toxic waste sites in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Michigan.
“Superfund” is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It allows EPA (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to clean up such sites and to compel responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanups. Superfund sites exist in most of the states of the U.S. If you want to discover whether there is a Superfund site near your home, see EPA’s web site (www.epa.gov/superfund/sites).
Love Canal was the first Superfund Site, i.e., an EPA designated toxic waste site requiring “remediation” – a government word for massive clean-up. Love Canal was a neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y. and the site of the worst environmental disaster involving chemical wastes in U.S. history. The Love Canal area was originally the site of an abandoned canal that became a dumping ground for nearly 22,000 tons of chemical waste (including polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, and pesticides) produced by the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation in the 1940s and 1950s. In the following years the site was filled and given to the growing city of Niagara Falls, which allowed housing to be built on the site. After people living atop the waste site reported a high number of cases of miscarriages and birth defects, state officials measured leakage of toxic chemicals into the basements of the homes. One of the most prevalent chemical vapors was benzene, a recognized carcinogen (i.e., able to cause cancer). Subsequent investigations established an abnormally high incidence of chromosomal damage among the area’s residents, presumably caused by their long-term exposure to the toxic chemical vapors seeping into their homes. Much of Love Canal was then evacuated and the abandoned homes purchased by the state of New York. The canal was capped and fenced off, and the buildings around it were razed. Public outrage over the Love Canal episode was the force that prodded Congress in 1980 to enact Superfund legislation to clean up massive contaminated sites across the country.
During the 1950s and 1960s a pernicious industrial chemical leaked into local environments due to sloppy (or criminal) practices at a few factories. These synthetic oils, called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were produced in large quantities for use as coolants in electrical transformers and capacitors, and as stabilizing additives in flexible PVC coatings and wiring to enhance their heat and fire resistance. The National Toxicology Program lists PCBs as suspected carcinogens, causing cancer of the liver. Long-term exposure may also cause serious damage to the immune system, endocrine system, and reproductive system. It is estimated that before their ban in the 1970s, the global production was 1.5 million tons, about half of which was produced in the U.S. Irresponsible discharges of PCBs by manufacturers and industrial users led to serious contamination of water ways and soils. The General Electric Company released up to 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, which led to a ban on all fishing in the upper Hudson River and 200 miles of the river were designated a Superfund Site. A Westinghouse Electric plant in Indiana is estimated to have dumped over 2 million pounds in Monroe and Owen Counties, perhaps the biggest concentration of PCBs in the world. Much of the Great Lakes are still heavily polluted with PCBs despite extensive remediation work, and local fish and shellfish are contaminated.
If you are considering the purchase of a home in a new area, it would be prudent – for your family’s health – to discover if it is near a superfund site that has not be remediated.