The Buffalo News - NORTHERN SUBURBS

Toxic in Tonawanda?

As state investigates, a neighborhood in fear

By T.J. PIGNATARO

News Staff Reporter

1/13/2002

 

'This neighborhood is killing us. There's death all around us' Gwen Connette had bladder cancer.

Judith Fox survived breast cancer.

Rebecca Czerwinski has a thyroid condition and a list of other ills that force her to swallow a pile of medications every day.

The stories of these three families living on Dunlop Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda are only the beginning.

In the tight-knit neighborhood surrounding what once was a site for the Manhattan Project - which helped build the first nuclear bomb - people have often whispered that something just wasn't right.

But now, the state Department of Health has confirmed what many feared for a long time: Unusually high cancer rates in this post-World War II working-class community - with its own neighborhood school and even town golf course - surrounded by industrial properties just west of Military Road.

The cancer rates, the state found, are at least 10 percent higher than normal.

And with that, fear grows among those closest to the former Linde Plant, where radioactive uranium was processed during the 1940s as the first step toward developing nuclear bombs.

"This neighborhood is killing us," said Czerwinski, 55, of 117 Dunlop. "There's death all around us. None of this should be happening."

Czerwinski, who has lived in the area since 1964, doesn't have cancer. But she believes her neighborhood is responsible for her husband, Thomas', heart disease as well as her many ailments. They include a thyroid condition, autoimmune disease, osteoarthritis and deterioration of the lining of her ribs.

Czerwinski and others in this neighborhood say they recall that, as children, they used to fish golf balls out of a murky creek near the Linde site, or play in sandboxes at a nearby park containing what some now suspect was mercury.

"Most of the boys used to play in the creek," Czerwinski said. "I used to play in the park, in the sand. There was mercury there. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time."

Now the Czerwinskis, like some others in the community, say they just want "the hell out" of the only neighborhood they've known for four decades. They're moving to the quiet Adirondacks community of Lake Placid.

"I love my home," she said. "I have a beautiful home, but we live on a toxic dump. We have to get away."

State health officials last month announced results of a yearlong investigation into cancer incidences in two ZIP codes, 14150 and 14217, surrounding an industrial area of Tonawanda that includes the Linde plant.

The study of 21 types of cancer reported to the state between 1994 and 1998 found an overall cancer rate 10 percent higher than expected. But with some specific cancers, the rate was much higher.

Especially high cancer rates

Colorectal cancer, for example, was 25 percent higher than expected in males. Bladder cancer in women was 26 percent higher than expected. Breast cancer in women was 12.5 percent higher than expected. Thyroid cancer in women was 81 percent higher than expected.

Medical evidence has found that each of those four cancers can be associated with radiation exposure, according to the state Health Department.

However, the state has not made any connection between the higher-than-expected cancer rates and any environmental factors, said Claire T. Pospisil, a spokeswoman for the Health Department.

"This kind of study is not going to establish a cause, per se," said Pospisil.

And while residents are quick to point to the former Linde plant, company officials said they don't believe the plant is responsible. Four studies conducted on plant workers by the company between 1943 and 1999, and one last year by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, did not find any abnormal cancer rates associated with radiation, said Site Manager Dennis A. Conroy.

"None of these studies show an excess of cancers normally associated with radiation," Conroy said. "These studies were of people who were literally knee-deep in uranium ore seven days a week."

Given that, he said, it doesn't appear the plant is responsible for neighborhood illnesses.

Remediation of the Linde site began in 1995. About 75 percent of the contaminated soil, about 80,000 tons, has been removed and taken out of New York State, Conroy said.

The Linde site is now owned by Praxair, which produces industrial gases.

State plans more study

To learn more about the health situation in the Tonawanda neighborhood, the state has announced a follow-up study to further understand the higher-than-expected cancer levels.

The study will be more detailed than the last one, offering a 10-year look, and it will also focus on a smaller area. The exact boundaries of the new study have not been finalized, but the area immediately surrounding the Linde site is under consideration.

"At this point, we are proceeding with the next step of this study to look at a smaller area of this site over a longer time period to strengthen our findings," Pospisil said.

Residents - some of whom worked at the Linde plant - have long been skeptical of the clean bill of health the plant has issued itself through its worker studies. They welcome the Health Department studies.

"They are full of condensed applesauce. They are going to do everything to disprove their responsibility," Donald L. Finch said of the Linde studies. He lives half a mile from the plant, where he worked for 20 years before retiring in February 1994.

Finch, who had his cancerous prostate gland removed in 1988, is the person who spearheaded efforts to get the state to conduct a neighborhood health study.

Finch said he is glad the state's upcoming study will narrow the study area. Looking at the two broad ZIP codes, as was originally done, "dilutes the problem," Finch said.

Beyond that, there's a feeling among some residents that the state's study still isn't going far enough. Some would like the Health Department study to go beyond cancer and look into other diseases they said are plaguing their neighborhood.

Czerwinski, for example, has a noncancerous thyroid condition.

"It's not just cancer. This whole area is a myriad of disease," Czerwinski said. "I'd like to see some kind of a study for diseases other than cancer."

Ex-residents want study

In addition, former Tonawanda residents with health ailments are concerned that they are not included in the state study.

Among them is Gayle Parker, who lived in the industrial Sheridan Parkside neighborhood, about half a mile from the Linde plant, before moving to Phoenix in 1992. She lost her son in 1998 at age 42 to bone cancer. Her daughter, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, beat the disease.

"I just wonder how much the plants had to do with this," Parker said. "I can't specifically say where my kids played, but all I know was they were always in that area."

Former Tonawanda resident William A. Kish, who now lives in Florida, agreed.

"I am presently recuperating from surgery to remove a rather large, nonmalignant tumor from my brain," Kish said. "Having been raised on the other side of the golf course from Linde Air and having spent countless hours looking for golf balls in the creek that split the golf course from my parents' house - which is where the dumping took place - and also having spent many hours playing baseball at the old Linde ball field, I find it no surprise I became afflicted with this terrible malady."

Dunlop Ave. neighbors

Such concerns among people with serious illnesses are easy to find on the streets around the Linde plant, such as Dunlop Avenue.

Czerwinski said she has spent countless hours walking on Dunlop and nearby streets, even on Linde grounds, thinking that the exercise was good for her. Now she wonders if all that environmental exposure made her sick. And she wonders if the hours her husband, Thomas, spent as a child looking for golf balls in the creek near the Linde plant have anything to do with his heart problems.

Just across the street from the Czerwinskis, Gwen Connette, 67, says her son, Eddie, played in the same creek. She wonders if that's related to the noncancerous brain tumor he suffered. Connette herself is recovering from bladder cancer, having had a tumor removed in 2000.

"I hope this doesn't turn out to be another Love Canal," said Connette, a home health care nurse who has lived on Dunlop Avenue since 1957.

Not far down the road, Judith Fox, 58, who moved to 265 Dunlop in 1972, wasn't surprised by the recent Health Department finding.

Fox is a breast cancer survivor.

"Everybody here has always kidded about "not digging too deep in your back yard because you can't be sure what you might find,' " Fox said.

At 97 Dunlop, Irv and Alice Hils saw their daughter Cheryl die of breast cancer two years ago, at age 43.

Irv Hils believes his neighborhood and Western New York's pollution in general were "contributing factors" to his daughter's death as well as his wife's thyroid problems.

"You don't know really for sure. I think it probably had a lot to do with it, but you can't just say every cancer is caused by this," he said.

Still, residents say, they wonder. And they've been wondering more and more since learning about the Health Department study.

Eileen Nicosia, who has lived on Dunlop Avenue for five years, for example, thought about her daughter's heart defect after learning about the higher-than-normal cancer levels in her neighborhood.

Meghan was born with her heart on the wrong side of her chest. When the fetus was developing, doctors said, it read chromosomes backward. The girl is otherwise healthy, as are the family's two other children, Nicosia said.

But Nicosia remains worried, and said she's now nervous whenever her children play outside.

"If they found something green and goopy out in the back yard, you wouldn't know anything unless they came in covered with it," she said.

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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