Becoming a Toxic Waste Detective

"The parents expressed concern that their children’s diagnoses were more than just bad luck..."

I first visited the Edison Wetlands Association (EWA) headquarters as part of a high school class trip when I was 14 years old. Much of the outing in Edison, New Jersey consisted of nature tours and trail walks, but during the parting presentation, the director of the nonprofit, which is dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, passed around a sealed jar of multicolored sludge and told us about EWA’s work to investigate the cancer-causing paint waste dumped on a Native American community in Ringwood, NJ. I was holding in my hand little pieces of industrial poison that were believed to be making many people sick in my own state. I applied to volunteer at EWA as soon as I could.

By age 18, I had worked my way up at the organization to “toxic detective work.” Each site inspection we went on, I donned what looked to be a spacesuit — not for the exploration of distant, hostile planets — but to protect me from the poisons polluting industries had leaked into backyards, bedrooms, and playgrounds here on Earth.

In the spring of 2017, a clip from a local Indiana news outlet made its way into my inbox. Hands shaking and eyes watering, a group of parents held up pictures of their children who had cancer. Many of these families had ties to a central-Indiana city: Franklin. The parents expressed concern that their children’s diagnoses were more than just bad luck, and that they weren’t getting answers from their government. My organization had mostly been doing work in New Jersey, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what was going on in Franklin.

Through EWA, I filed public records requests with several federal and state agencies to gather information on contaminated sites in Franklin. Soon, my childhood home began to resemble a Hollywood set for an FBI investigation scene, with thousands of pages of maps, memos, and government data fastened to the walls and spread on the floor. These files revealed the disturbing history of one site in particular. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, a former company called Bendix ran an electric parts factory at what’s now known as the “Amphenol Corporation” site. It used solvents like trichloroethylene, a known human carcinogen, in the manufacturing process. The solvents leaked directly onto the ground and into the city’s sewers.

Painstaking research uncovered that even government officials back in the day did not feel confident that adequate time or resources were spent to address the serious contamination threats associated with this site. Families may have been unknowingly exposed to chemical fumes and substantial health risks for years. So EWA decided that if the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wasn’t going to step up, then we would.

On a balmy summer morning last year, we hit the ground in Franklin. As children made chalk drawings in driveways and parents prepared lunch inside, our team carried in equipment that looked like it was straight out of a sci-fi movie. Families let us into their homes to take indoor air samples, with a mix of hope and fear for what might be found. A laboratory analysis of the air samples we collected revealed poisonous gases in several homes, some exceeding state thresholds by an order of magnitude. Armed with that information, parents began to demand EPA investigate the matter further. After receiving some 40,000 petition signatures, 600 postcards emblazoned with “Hey, EPA: Wish You Were Here!” and many phone calls and emails, the feds scrambled to re-open the environmental cold case, and a chemical plume underlying at least several dozen homes was found. The environmental and health agencies could no longer hide from the toxic truth. Together, our organization and the Franklin families uncovered in a matter of months what these state and federal agencies could not in 20 years.

The Franklin story is still unfolding as we work on getting a permanent cleanup, but it is a tragedy that sheds light on the larger problems this country is facing. While the US president points to “foreign elements” to justify major spending on bombs and walls, the real threat our families and children face is the wholesale poisoning of our nation by polluting industries and the failure of our government to protect us from that. The White House, Congress, and our regulatory agencies need to respond to this chemical threat with the same vigor as any real national security issue.

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