For years, the families of nearly two dozen Wilmington cancer victims have been awaiting the results of a state Department of Public Health study probing a possible connection between toxic chemicals in the town’s water supply and higher than average child cancer rates in their neighborhoods.
At least two of the cancer victims have died since the study got underway about 14 years ago. Others have moved away. But all of the families have held out hope that the research might shed some light on whether ground-water contamination caused their loved ones to get sick.
“I just want the truth,” said Lee Brooks of Wilmington, whose son Paul died of leukemia at age 23 in 2006. “I don’t care how long it takes, as long as it’s the truth.”
A recent investigation on the Olin Chemical plant site by the United States Environmental Protection Agency found contamination from at least 196 organic and inorganic chemicals, including ammonia, chloride, sodium, sulfate, chromium, and N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), which is classified as a B2 carcinogen and is “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer.
Investigators found an underground plume of contamination that stretched nearly three-quarters of a mile.
Officials with the Department of Public Health said they are nearing completion of the study — which has languished amid funding constraints, budget cuts, and turnover within the state agency — but the results won’t be made public until sometime in early 2014.
Town officials said the cancer study should have been finished years ago.
“It’s not acceptable that these families have had to wait so long for answers,” said Shelly Newhouse, Wilmington’s director of public health, who has pushed for the study’s completion along with longtime members of the town’s health board. “We have been very vocal about our concerns, but we’re at the state’s mercy.”
Researchers began studying the cancer cases in Wilmington’s Kelly Hill neighborhood in 1999. The Department of Public Health’s preliminary investigation focused on the time period of 1987 to 1995, when one child was diagnosed with brain cancer, four were diagnosed with leukemia, and one was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in the two Wilmington census tracts they studied.
The study was later expanded to include 1996 to 1998, when similarly elevated numbers of children were diagnosed with cancer. State health officials said the findings showed the cancer rate in the two census tracks was twice the rate of childhood cancer statewide.
While the research hasn’t determined the cause of the cancer “cluster,” town officials, activists, lawmakers, and others have long suspected carcinogens that leached into the town’s water supply from the defunct Olin Chemical plant, now a 53-acre Superfund site at 51 Eames St. Another possible source of contamination is the 30-acre Maple Meadow Landfill at 923 Main St., which was shut down in 1976, officials said. The sites are separated by about a third of a mile.
State Representative James R. Miceli of Wilmington has for years pushed to get the study done. He “believes in his gut” that decades of ground-water contamination from the Olin Chemical site contributed to the town’s troubling cancer rate.
“It’s taken a long time, but we should know within a matter of months,” he said.
EPA officials said much of the ground-water contamination on the site came from waste disposal beginning years before Olin bought the property in 1980.
In a statement, Olin said it has conducted “extensive sampling and analysis” of the property, an ongoing effort that has cost the company more than $70 million to date. “Olin is committed to continuing a sound, science-based approach to investigation and remediation at the Wilmington site,” the statement read.
Rubber companies on the property in the 1950s and 1960s discharged all liquid wastes into unlined pits and ponds. “Back then, the state and feds just allowed these companies to put anything into the ground they wanted,” Miceli said. “It’s horrible what they got away with.”
In 2003, several of Wilmington’s municipal drinking water wells were shut down by environmental regulators because of the contamination. NDMA also was detected in several private wells in the area. More than 60 percent of the town’s drinking water now comes from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and the water supply is tested regularly for contamination as required by federal and state laws.
Despite the town’s history of contamination, public health officials said none of the research gathered to date has found a link between ground-water pollution and the higher-than-average cancer rates. A carefully worded fact sheet on the DPH’s website explains that “no specific pathway of environmental exposure has been linked to childhood cancer in Wilmington.”
Kathy Barry, a community activist and representative of United Neighbors Invest in the Truth for Youth — a Wilmington group made up of family members whose children have been diagnosed with cancer — said family members firmly believe that chemicals in the water caused the illnesses, but want scientific evidence.
“In a way, the delays have been beneficial to the families because they will be getting an all-inclusive, comprehensive study,” Barry said. “And that’s what the families want. They want to find out if this caused their children’s cancer.”
As part of the study, state health officials interviewed 21 children diagnosed with cancer and their families to determine if other environmental factors – such as exposure to other carcinogens – might have played a role. Then they compared that data through interviews with healthy children, a time-consuming effort that was nearly stymied by a lack of community participation.
Researchers also traced the suspected flow of contaminants from the Olin site through the Kelly Hill area using EPA data and other historical materials and took hundreds of soil and ground-water samples.
Recently, they expanded the scope of the study to look into contamination of the ground water prior to 1989 and have requested additional data from the EPA.
The high rate of child cancer in Wilmington’s west end has been compared to the discovery of water-bound toxins found in Woburn 20 years ago that were linked to a spate of child leukemia cases. The pollution was the subject of a lawsuit that brought eight families and two companies to federal court — as retold in the book and movie “A Civil Action.” Attorney Jan Schlichtmann, who represented the Woburn families, has been advising the citizens group in Wilmington.
Some families have settled with a previous owner of the Olin property, Stepan Co., for an undisclosed amount to avoid litigation alleging that the company polluted the ground water during the late 1970s, according to Miceli. As part of the agreement, the Illinois-based company did not admit any liability, Miceli said.
Stepan and the site’s current owner, Olin, are negotiating with federal and state regulators to clean up soil and ground-water contamination, EPA officials said. Olin has taken steps to remove or at least contain some of the pollution, such as building a wall around old waste pits and excavating a nearby lake, according to the EPA.
The company also provided bottled water to two families who live near the site after EPA investigators detected NDMA in their wells.
Brooks said she hopes the study — if a link between the high cancer rates and contaminated water is found — will prevent other kids from getting sick. “That’s what my son would have wanted,” she said. “For them to make things right.”
Christian M. Wade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.