The previous analyses suggest that the incidence of childhood leukemia in Woburn from 1969-1976 was unusually high, but what exposure(s) or factors were responsible for the increase? A logical next step might be to assess the contaminants to which the community has been exposed.
Data on Environmental Contaminants
Sources of environmental information have improved a great deal since 1972 when Jimmy Anderson was diagnosed with leukemia. Today, when community members or health professionals have suspicions about an environmental contaminant causing health problems, one of the first steps should be to learn about the environmental quality of their community. Some questions they should ask are::
- Whether there are any hazardous waste sites in the community?
- What active industries are there?
- Are there specific chemicals that may be hazardous?
- How can one find out about the air and water quality in our community?
Data on the environment are routinely collected by federal, state, and local agencies.:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA - http://www.epa.gov/)
- State departments of the environment and public health, e.g.:
- Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP - http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/)
- Massachusetts Department of Public Health (Massachusetts DPH - http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/))
- Local boards of health, fire departments, and water companies
Other agencies also collect environmental data, but these are the best sources to start with.
Hazardous Waste Sites
In Massachusetts a good first step would be to contact the Massachusetts DEP and ask for the Hazardous Waste Division. In some states, the public health department may handle hazardous waste.
Once you have found the right person, ask if there are any:
- Superfund sites
- Any other hazardous waste sites
Superfund is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It is also the name of the fund established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, as amended (CERCLA statute, CERCLA overview). This law was enacted in the wake of the discovery of toxic waste dumps such as Love Canal and Times Beach in the 1970s. It allows the EPA to clean up such sites and to compel responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-lead cleanups.
Today, many resources are available on the web. The iFrame below is from the Massachusetts DEP web page on Cleanup of Waste Sites & Spills. Pay particular attention to the link for Cleanup Sites & Locations. There are several Superfund sites in Woburn, including Wells G and H. These resources did not exist when Anne Anderson began her quest for information. Superfund was not established until 1980. Massachusetts keeps an additional list of hazardous waste sites. This list includes everything from leaking underground storage tanks at gas stations to small dumpsites.
On that page, the link to Site-Specific Information provides a wealth of information on the Woburn site:
- U.S. EPA Information on the Superfund Site or the National Priorities List (NPL)
- MA Department of Public Health (DPH) Information on the site
Identifying Active Industries
Another important step when investigating environmental concerns in the community would be to identify active industries that use hazardous materials.
- Where are these industries located?
- What specific chemicals are they using or producing?
- Where do these chemicals end up? How are they disposed of?
Keep in mind that it is legal to emit hazardous pollutants into the air, water, and land, but there are specific regulations and policies that govern this. Facilities must first register with the state DEP and EPA (federal), and they obtain a permit. States will have permit information on all facilities on file. In addition to these "permitted" and intentional releases of chemicals, accidental or "fugitive" releases also occur. The best source of data for an overall snapshot of a town's industry is the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).
The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)
Under a federal law passed in 1986 (The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act) most large industries must submit annual reports to the EPA detailing how much of certain hazardous chemicals are released to the air, land, or water. Over 300 toxic chemicals are subject to reporting. EPA is required to make this information available to the public. The first year for which data is available is 1987. The TRI data and related information are available through a number of sources.
The EPA's Toxics Release Inventory Program.- The TRI lists, by town, the facility name, chemical, and how many pounds (per year) were released. The report indicates whether releases were to the air, to water, in waste injected underground, to land on the facility property, transferred to a sewage treatment plant publicly owned treatment works, or in wastes transferred off the property for disposal. The CAS number, which is used to uniquely identify the particular chemical, is also given. This is helpful, as some chemicals have several names and often the same name is used for more than one chemical.
You can also request additional information from the TRI, such as:
- What the chemical is used for
- The maximum amount of the chemical that is stored at any one time at the facility
- Actions the facility might be taking to reduce their releases.
TRI is a valuable source of data. However, it is important to be aware of TRI's limitations:
- TRI began in 1987. This source would not have been available to Anne Anderson.
- Not all industries are required to report to TRI. There are certain requirements that industries must fulfill before they have to report: (a) they must have at least 10 full time employees; and (b) they must handle a minimum amount (called threshold amount) of each chemical (at least 10,000 pounds).
- There are some 300 chemicals that must be reported, but chemicals not on this list do not have to be reported. Loopholes exist -- hazardous waste incinerator emissions and chemicals claimed to be recycled are not reported, nor are materials released by the military. Also note that reported quantities are based on facility estimates, not direct measurements.
Additional information can be obtained from a number of excellent sources:
- TOXNET - which provides multiple very useful databases including the Hazardous Substances Data Bank (toxicology for > 5,000 substances), LactMed (drugs & chemicals affecting breastfeeding), TOXMAP (interactive maps of Superfund data, US Census, and National Cancer Institute data), CCRIS (Chemical Carcinogenesis Research Information), DART (Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology Database. References to developmental and reproductive toxicology literature), Household Products Database (potential health effects of chemicals in more than 10,000 common household products), and several others.
- Toxnet Fact Sheets from the National Library of Medicine
- State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) [This link provides a page with links to the SERCs for all 50 US states.]
- Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs)
- The Right to Know Network - RTK-Net includes advanced tools for analysis of TRI data, as well as water permitting data.
- The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
- Local fire departments often have safety records for the TRI facilities in a community.
We wrote to the EPA and requested a list of all chemicals released to air, water, and land for Woburn that are listed in the TRI for 1987. In this example the release was a "fugitive" release to the air. This means that the release was unconfined; the chemical may have escaped by evaporation, for example, as opposed to air emissions, which are released from a discrete source such as a stack. [Do we have this example?? WL] We can Google Toxics Release Inventory 1987 and get a ZIP download of data from 1987-2012. Can we use this? WL
TRI contains information on the yearly totals industries release into the air. However, TRI does not tell you if these "releases" occurred in heavy bursts or in slow continuous releases. There is also no information on whether the emissions mix with the air and are dispersed over a wide area or stay trapped near the ground, and there is little information about the overall quality of the air in a given community.
A community's water supply is an important route by which people can be exposed to hazardous chemicals. Federal and state laws require testing of water supplies at specific intervals, although many industrial contaminants may not have been measured, particularly for years prior to 1989. Information about water quality in a community might be obtained from the local water department, county health department, or state department of the environment. It is also important to determine whether any sources of hazardous waste were located in proximity to wells or reservoirs.
Concerned citizens might also look for community organizations that focus on environmental issues. Also, the Environmental Clearinghouse which "...enables effective public participation in crucial environmental decisions by connecting public interest groups with legal and technical experts."
Historical Data on the Environment
Information on environmental contamination occurring prior to the 1980s is limited, but there are other potential sources such as:
- City annual reports (which sometimes date back to the 1800s) describing the industries and how much they produced.
- City Clerk and Assessors Offices maintain records of past land use.
- The Fire Department has copies of past and present flammable material permits, and violation notices.
- The State Board of Health has detailed reports, sewer permits, and inspection records for each city and town.
- The local libraries have old newspaper articles. They also have insurance maps, and other old City maps which show the location of industries over time.
- Historical societies and trade associations are further sources of information that have been useful.