Reading Room

Woman Looks Back At Her Toxic N.J. Youth

 Wedneday, February 20, 2002
Staff Writer (The Record)

Her body's betrayals, in her 45 years, range from asthma to infertility, from miscarried quadruplets to malformed organs. She wears a scar across her throat like a necklace that binds her to others who have had thyroid tumors removed. 

Susanne Antonetta traces her body's breakdowns to the smokestacks and pipelines of industrial New Jersey. Here in the most chemically contaminated state in the country, she ran as a child behind trucks spraying clouds of mosquito-killing DDT, splashed in waters polluted by factory waste, and picked berries along a fence bordering a nuclear plant. 

It was an ordinary New Jersey life: poisonous, in retrospect. 

"I think we, as baby boomers, have been the lint filters of the chemical age," said Antonetta, whose memoir, "Body Toxic," examines her toxic exposures in the Garden State. 

"We're the head lab rats," she said. "After World War II, we discovered all these wonderful miracle chemicals -DDT got rid of mosquitoes so nicely, PCBs conducted heat and didn't burn. And little by little, many of these things were made illegal or banned." 

Antonetta's book explores the connections between pollution and health that have troubled so many residents of this industry-laced state. Here in North Jersey, in towns from Wayne to Garfield, residents have long looked to the water they drink, the air they breathe, or the ground underfoot for answers to their illnesses. Over the decades, their questions have gone mostly unanswered:

Did the radioactive thorium-laced soil in Maywood cause the 17 diagnosed cases of brain and central nervous system cancers in women in the mid-1990s? Are the lead, mercury, and other contamination that spewed from a munitions plant in Pompton Lakes to blame for a rash of reproductive disorders, birth defects, and cancers, as 1,586 residents claim in a lawsuit that goes to trial in April? Did the 42 industries that encircled a panic-stricken Rutherford in 1978 poison the 29 people diagnosed with blood cancers in a corner of that town, including the six youngsters in a single elementary school? 

"There was never any doubt in my mind," said Vivian Cleffi, whose 10-year-old son, Jimmy, attended that school and died of leukemia 25 years ago after 14 months of chemotherapy. "His cancer definitely was from chemicals, and the doctors told us that from the very first day. But we were told it was too hard to prove." 

Sometimes, scientists can find that proof, as they did in a landmark case that showed hundreds of employees at Paterson's United Asbestos & Rubber Co. died because of exposure to the asbestos fibers. Attorneys later uncovered documents showing that manufacturers knew for decades that asbestos was killing workers. 

But most alleged clusters remain murky, haunting neighborhoods and towns where people suspect - but can never substantiate - the cause of so much suffering. Such was the case three years ago of the cancers among Wallington teachers, who worked a stone's throw from one of the nation's most toxic sites. State officials said the fears were baseless, and the site was deemed clean in 2002. Still, the worry there persists. 

"Many people say you can't make direct causal connections," Antonetta said in a telephone interview from her office in Bellingham, Wash., where she writes and teaches writing at a university. "Of course, you can't. You can draw implications, but you can be wrong. We can only say that people today are suffering from diseases that used to be really rare, that barely existed at all." 

For years, chemical contamination in New Jersey has been unmatched in the nation. The state has more federal Superfund hazardous waste sites - 108 -than any other in the country. One mud-colored stream in Wood-Ridge, Berry's Creek, recorded the highest concentration of mercury found in freshwater sediments anywhere in the world. 

Health officials here have compiled unusually high cancer death statistics for two decades. In 1980, a state commission dubbed New Jersey "Cancer-State USA." Federal officials called it "Cancer Alley." The most recent health report shows an increase in cancers among women in the past five years and a slight leveling off for men. 

"I'm tired of talking to the sons and daughters about how their parents died, or to parents about how their children died," said Wayne attorney Jon Gelman, who has handled asbestos cases since the 1970s. "It shouldn't be the result of living in New Jersey. It's not so much what's happening today as what happened in the past. It's a legacy of toxic contamination." 

In today's world, there is no escaping toxic substances, Antonetta said. For example, she has explored the effects of radiation contamination at a nuclear plant in Hanford, Wash., only to recognize a trait shared by some residents there: They too, bear the scar across their throats left after surgery to remove thyroid tumors. They refer to it as the "Hanford necklace." Antonetta calls it her "Mona Lisa smile." 

She says hers is the story of "a normal, everyday, commonplace New Jerseyan." 

Doctors have removed numerous cysts from her ovaries, and growths - always benign - from her liver. She has endometriosis, an arrhythmic heart, and severe allergies. She suffers from manic depression - which she believes may be tied to chemical exposures - and she controls it with medication. Of the six women in her family who shared summer bungalows, only two have been able to conceive. 

"So many women I knew from the same area were dealing with these health problems," said Antonetta, who has written three collections of poems in addition to her "environmental memoir." "It was really important to me at the time to make sense of the chaos my body had become." 

Though intensely private - she shuns photographs and most interviews - she describes her ailments in vivid detail. She conceived quadruplets spontaneously, an event given a one-in-500,000 chance, but lost them in the third month. Infertility followed, and doctors found that she had a malformed, double-chambered uterus. 

It was after her thyroid surgery - after many doctors asked when she had been exposed to radiation - that she decided to investigate her past. Six years ago, she began reading the literature of chemicals from the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, in which "DDT, PCBs, and nuclear power were hailed as friends of humanity, the things that would lead us into the future. The rhetoric was so powerful and sincere." 

She turned to the chemistry around the bungalow on Barnegat Bay, where her family summered, as well as in Elizabeth, where she grew up. Her inquiry transformed what had been a childhood spent swimming, picking berries, and catching fish into, in retrospect, a decades-long toxic bath. 

The blowfish - caught, fried, and devoured - were snatched from the waters of Toms River, where the Ciba-Geigy dye and resin factory disposed of 14,000 barrels of toxins from 1952 to 1996 and where thousands of drums of Union Carbide company waste was dumped in 1971. 

The tart gooseberries - picked and popped into her mouth raw - were not only sprayed by DDT trucks and crop-dusters, but were picked along the chain-link fence of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant, a facility nuclear regulatory reports show released radioactivity into the air in the 1970s and '80s, according to a scientist, Jay Gould of the New York City-based Radiation and Public Health Project. He is studying radiation levels in baby teeth collected from around Oyster Creek and other nuclear power plants. 

Antonetta had also drunk and eaten sediment from Denzer & Shafer X-ray, a negative stripping plant that leached lead, arsenic, chromium, and mercury into the water. The tap water "reeked," tasting as if it were "pumped from hell's drinking fountain," Antonetta writes. "We all developed an unaccountable taste for it. Uncle Eddie bottled it and drank it at home." In 1984, the county told them the well was contaminated. 

Despite her research, she doesn't know whether the DDT exposure explains the endometriosis, whether any radioactive releases led to the thyroid tumors. 

"No one can explain what's wrong with anybody," she writes. "Though I don't believe in coincidences of this magnitude either: clusters of children with brain disorders, toxic plumes and clouds, radiation spewing in the air. Every vital system of my body is disrupted: an arrhythmic heart, a seizing brain, severe allergies, useless reproductive organs. Either it's Sodom and this is the wrath of God or it's the wrath of man, which is thoughtless, foolish, and much more lasting." 

Antonetta's achievement, according to The New York Times Book Review, "is to devise a literary voice for the people who live in such places, for the bodies that have been 'charged and reformed by the landscape' of pollution." 

A voice, say, for the 28 women with leukemia in Garfield, Lodi, Wallington, and Hawthorne, a confirmed cluster that, in 1987, had suspected links to contaminated well water; or the 200 documented deaths from rare cancers over 20 years among people who lived near the site of the former W.ŸR. Grace & Co. plant in Wayne; or the girls raised near the Du Pont munitions factory in Pompton Lakes, who had so much lead in their bones they were advised never to have children, their attorneys said in 1997. 

Her book is a voice for Louise Torell, one of 484 plaintiffs from Maywood, Lodi, and Rochelle Park who sued the Stepan Chemical Co. in 1997, alleging that the company had improperly disposed of chemical waste and allowed it to spread. Many plaintiffs have died of liver, brain, or lung cancer.

Was Torell's husband's cancer caused by radioactive thorium? "Probably," she said. "Nobody's going to come out and say yes."

Dorothy Carlson's is a tearful voice. She tells of her father's, grandfather's and four uncles' deaths. They worked at the UNARCO asbestos company in Paterson along with hundreds of employees who would die of asbestos-related illnesses. Many of the wives, who did nothing more than live with their husbands and do their laundry, also died.

"All I know is it is a horrible way to die," said Carlson, of Vernon, who is still mourning the loss of her beloved father, who withered to 70 pounds and died of lung cancer brought on by asbestosis in 1983, and her mother, who died 16 months later of a heart attack, with a silver-dollar-sized spot of asbestosis on her lungs Most recently, a sister died of lung cancer, though no one can blame it on asbestos because she smoked. 

"Ours was a very tragic family," she said. "Everybody wiped out by an industry when they were young." 

The government acknowledged the danger of asbestos in the mid-1980s. But many others over the years have been unable to make such links to what they believe are clusters of illnesses. 

In 1978, the Rutherford case garnered headlines worldwide when the state confirmed higher rates of leukemia and Hodgkin's disease within a seven-block radius, a definite "cluster." But further study failed to link the illnesses to a toxic source. A state DEP study concluded that nine known carcinogens were present in Rutherford's air, including benzene, a known cause of leukemia, but none in amounts large enough to do harm. 

"They referred to us as 'well-coiffed women in a state of panic,'" recalls Cleffi, who moved with her two surviving sons to Morris County to escape what she recalled as Rutherford's toxic smells and burgundy-colored nights. 

She still has all the health reports in a file labeled "Cancer Town." Cleffi thinks of writing her own book, but worries about revisiting the terrible loss buried under 25 years. 

Every week, state health officials receive calls from people reporting unusual "clusters" of illnesses. To link illnesses to a polluter is extremely challenging, said Jerry Fagliano, program manager with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Cancer has a long latency period that can stretch for decades. Even when scientists can establish a group's exposure to the same source, it's difficult to re-create the intensity of exposures that occurred years earlier. 

In Toms River, Fagliano spent five years and $10 million to establish recently that girls whose pregnant mothers were exposed to air pollution from the Ciba-Geigy factory were 19 times more likely to get leukemia. Those whose mothers drank water from a particular well were six times more likely to be stricken. 

But even though researchers studied everything from dust samples taken from attics to computer models of how much contaminated tap water may have flowed into each home, the study failed to explain all the 118 cancers - including 16 deaths - among children in the area since 1979. 

Fagliano believes those connections will be easier to make as technology to map toxic spills improves and as more data on disease and pollutants are recorded. "It's not impossible, just challenging, very challenging," he said. 

Antonetta just hopes they also focus on cleaning up to protect future generations, among them her adopted 4-year-old son. 

For now, she tends to her next work of non-fiction on the environment and to her body's now-predictable failures: "I walk around with these lumps and I think, 'Oh, more of the same.' Every couple of years I have surgery. I'm out for a week. It's no big deal. I get back on my feet." 

And she wonders about the toxic surprises of tomorrow. "What, she asks, "will we create next?" 

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