Toxic Town

Talk of the Town

Sad: Wow, your story ["Toxic Town," by Todd Spivak, December 6] is a real jaw-dropper. I lived in Somerville as a child and moved away after high school. I had no idea any of this was happening and knew some of the people in the photos. Sad story — great coverage.

Kelly Reyes
Abbeville, Mississippi

It's high noon in Somerville: Lines are being drawn and sides are being taken. Our hometown loyalty is being challenged. Ugly personal insults are being spewed. Knees are jerking. The story in the Houston Press is horrifying from either ­perspective:

1. There may be a highly toxic chemical presence in Somerville that is causing people to sicken and die, which has been deliberately (or at least carelessly) perpetrated and criminally covered up, or

2. A tiny town with little or no recourse to defend itself is being unfairly characterized as a toxic place to live on the basis of possibly lawyer-driven, greed-based and certainly incomplete investigations.

We who are from Somerville and may still have family living there, and who love our little hometown, are shocked whichever way this thing slices. But I don't think it's a "For Somerville" or "Against Somerville" issue. Is it "against" Somerville to want the poisons and the cover-up, if they exist, exposed and remediated? Is it "for" Somerville to refuse to accept even the possibility that there may be toxins in the environment, and perhaps continue to have our loved ones exposed to them? (I, for one, refuse to drink that gray water, and have ordered my mother to switch to bottled water immediately.)

The list of "victims" seems to be varied as to complaints, and some seem pretty farfetched. Tilman Hein's death, for instance, wasn't caused by the tie plant (he died of acute necrotizing fasciitis) — but then again, he was very sick all his life, and maybe that was because of the plant. And it doesn't seem likely that chemicals could cause diabetes, or that a pregnant woman could get enough toxins eating vegetables to cause severe birth defects without seriously compromising her own health. On the other hand, exposure to creosote is known to cause skin and scrotum cancer, and high levels of fumes can cause respiratory problems and birth defects in ­animals.

Maybe all these sick folks are just looking for someone to blame for their problems or want to take a ride on the class-action gravy train. But...what if they're right?

We need to reserve judgment — and take precautions — until the results are in. Only a report independent of the attorneys involved in the lawsuits can provide a truly objective analysis of whatever chemicals the tie plant may have discharged over the years, their environmental levels and the relative toxicity still present, if any.

We'll call Erin Brockovich if we need her.

Karen Sager Torres
SHS Class of 1968

Interesting article: However, there's a major problem with your premise.

Some years ago, a town in Canada — Sydney, Nova Scotia — had a similar issue. It seems the cancer rate was going through the roof. All the locals either had cancer, knew someone who had it or were related to someone who had it. They blamed a proximity to an abandoned steel and coke plant, and the remaining waste water pond nearby. This outcry led to investigation and remedial action.

However, every serious, independent study (funded by universities and government) found:

1. The perception of a higher cancer rate was, in fact, perception. There was no great statistical variance of disease occurrence relative to the rest of the province, or country, once age, smoking, etc. was taken into consideration.

2. It was impossible to filter out personal health issues (the population had a high rate of smoking, drinking and obesity) from the environmental ones. In other words, if you or a relative did have cancer, what actually caused it was at best difficult to determine.

3. When the plant closed, the town was left older (with reduced job opportunities, young people left the area) and unemployed. Those facts alone will lead to higher rates of disease, not necessarily proximity to any given pollutant. To the locals, the diseases started to appear after everyone lost their jobs. When everyone was working, death was part of the ebb and flow of life.

4. This may come across as elitist, but a population of people who are undereducated, working at industrial jobs, with a poor diet and high smoking and alcohol consumption rates, will have much higher rates of all diseases. The New York Times reported a study this week that points to shift work (you think?) as having a hugely detrimental effect on your heath — especially after the age of 40. The description of these people at the start of this point does not at all make them lesser people. It is merely a demographic summation of who they are.

The area around Sydney is being cleaned up, at a cost of $400 million. All official documentation refers to it being an environmental disaster. The cleanup is being done to restore the lands to health as best as possible. This is the right thing to do. However, there's no mention of any human health issues, as there were no conclusive findings relative to the polluted lands.

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