Toxic Town: Birth Defects
Paula Baade was two months pregnant when doctors learned during a prenatal ultrasound that her baby would be severely deformed and advised her to abort the fetus.
On June 4, 1986, Jessica Baade was born at Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospital with her liver, spleen and large and small intestines all on the outside of her body. The muscles in her abdominal wall did not form properly, causing the organs to poke through her belly button. She had no right ear, no hinge in her jaw, and the right side of her body was significantly smaller than the left.
Doctors rushed her into emergency surgery, stitched a cast onto her abdomen and spent the next two weeks slowly squeezing her organs into her body. The newborn was hooked to a ventilator for four months in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. Sedated with drugs that paralyzed her muscles, she never opened her eyes or made a sound.
"My earliest memories are being in a hospital," says Jessica, who underwent major surgeries almost every year until she was 12 — most recently in 2005, when doctors removed two ribs to rebuild her jaw and make her an ear (there's no hole; it's for cosmetic purposes). Today she's 21, works for an insurance company in Brenham and is living with her parents until her husband, a U.S. marine stationed in Japan, returns home.
"I taught her never to be embarrassed," says the mom, who made a point of always clipping Jessica's hair up to reveal her missing ear.
Doctors never could explain what caused Jessica's birth defects. Neither her mother's nor her father's family had any history of such problems. But today the Baade family can't help wondering if the wood-treatment plant in Somerville had something to do with it.
Jessica's father, Ron Baade, was raised in Somerville, and had briefly worked for the tie plant during his youth; his own father had worked there for nearly 40 years. Paula Baade, while pregnant with Jessica, frequently made the 15-mile trip to Somerville from their home in Brenham to visit her mother-in-law, who for years used creosote-treated railroad ties manufactured at the facility to line her vegetable garden.
"Whatever his mother cooked, I ate," she says.
Recent environmental tests now reveal grossly elevated levels of dioxin and arsenic — two known carcinogens linked to severe birth defects and developmental problems — in dust samples taken from the attics of 14 Somerville homes and five school buildings. The dust samples represent a "time capsule" of historical contamination caused by the tie plant, according to Paul Rosenfeld, principal of the California-based environmental consulting company Soil/Water/Air Protection Enterprise.
The Baades are one of several families suing current tie plant owner Koppers Inc. and former owner BNSF Railway, alleging that emissions from the facility caused an array of severe birth defects. Both companies have denied all allegations. "BNSF believes that this litigation is based on lawsuit-driven junk science," railway company spokesman Joseph Faust e-mailed the Houston Press in a statement.
Renee Beaudet is likely the most severely disabled of all the plaintiffs currently suing the tie plant. Doctors don't know exactly what is wrong with Renee. She was born with a heart defect and has since been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. As a baby, she cried constantly and would not eat. Her mother, Yolanda Pardee, resorted to feeding her formula with a medicine dropper.
By age ten, Renee weighed just 18 pounds. "Like bones," says the mom, a home health care worker who was raised in Somerville and frequently visited family in the town while pregnant with Renee.
Today Renee is 25 years old, measures 42 inches long and weighs 54 pounds. Her face appears to be normal-sized, but her body is not. Her arms and legs do not bend. Legally blind, mentally retarded and quadriplegic, she stays in a small wood-paneled room with a broken ceiling light in her mother's apartment in Bryan.
She is fed a can of vanilla PediaSure through a tube every six hours. A monitor measures her heart rate and oxygen level. She mostly lies on her side, appearing catatonic and making grunting sounds.
"To me, she's still like a baby," says Pardee, who draws a few hundred dollars a month from Medicaid and social security to help care for her.
The tie plant has for decades been dogged by charges that its operations have caused bizarre reproductive problems in the families of employees and nearby residents. During a brief period in the late 1970s, at least two families with links to Somerville and the tie plant — the Sowders and the Supaks — had babies born with cleft palates. Both families are now plaintiffs in the lawsuits.
More recently, on December 2, 1998, Makayla Antu was born with large and small intestines that were neither fully developed nor connected, making her unable to expel waste. Soon after delivery at St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan, her stomach appeared hard and swollen. She was life-flighted to Scott & White Hospital in Temple, where doctors performed a colostomy and removed part of her intestines.
Makayla spent most of her first nine months in hospitals due to complications from surgery and postoperative infections. Doctors warned that she would be mentally challenged, according to her mother, Britney Antu. Now in third grade at Somerville Elementary School, Makayla is a member of the honor roll. She loves to play soccer, though too much sunlight sometimes makes her feel nauseous and faint.
Britney Antu and her husband Joey are trying to sell their house and move away from Somerville before growing their family.
"I want out," the mom says. "I'm scared to have another baby here."
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