Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#371 - Chemicals And Health -- Part 3, 05-Jan-1994

Several studies of industrial dumps and contaminated water supplies
during the last decade have reported adverse health effects among
exposed human populations.[1] The principal health findings include:

** Significantly reduced stature (height) for a given age among
children who lived near Love Canal, the chemical waste dump in Niagara
Falls, N.Y., compared to a control group of children living further
from the dump.[2]

** A higher prevalence of birth defects and liver disease among persons
living near a thorium waste disposal site in Wayne, New Jersey,
compared to persons living further away from the site.[3] (Thorium is a
naturally-occurring radioactive element processed on this site by a
private firm under contract to the old Atomic Energy Commission, now
called the Department of Energy.)

** Low birth weight and birth defects in California children born in
census tracts having waste disposal sites.[4]

** Enlargement of the liver (hepatomegaly) and abnormal liver function
tests reported in residents exposed to solvents from a toxic waste dump
in Hardemann County, Tenn.[5]

** Dermatitis, respiratory irritation, neurologic symptoms and
pancreatic cancer at 7 waste disposal sites.[6]

** Significantly elevated rates of illness, including chronic kidney
disease, stroke, hypertension [high blood pressure], heart disease,
anemia, and skin cancer in a population exposed to toxic metals
(cadmium and lead) from mine wastes in Galena, Kansas.[7]

** Leukemia (cancer of the blood-forming cells) among a group of
children drinking water contaminated with industrial solvents in
Woburn, Mass. In addition, a study of 4936 pregnancies and 5018
residents of Woburn aged 18 or younger revealed significant positive
associations between intake of contaminated water and birth defects of
the central nervous system, eye, ear, and face (e.g., cleft palate), as
well as abnormalities of the chromosomes.[8]

** In Lowell, Mass., a group of 1049 people living 1200 feet from a
large chemical waste dump was higher in self-reported complaints of
wheezing, shortness of breath, cough, and persistent colds; irregular
heart beat; constant fatigue and bowel dysfunction, compared to people
living 2 and 3 times as far from the dump.[9] This study examined the
possibility of recall bias (people selectively remembering health
problems, or chemical exposures) and concluded that recall bias did not
explain the findings.

** In Hamilton, Ontario, a study of people who lived and/or worked near
an industrial dump revealed significantly elevated rates of the
following conditions: bronchitis; difficulty breathing; cough; skin
rash; arthritis; heart problems (angina [chest pain], and heart
attacks); muscle weakness in arms and legs; tremors, cramps, and
spasms; headaches; dizziness; lethargy; balance problems; and mood
symptoms (anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, and
restlessness) compared to populations living further from the site.[10]
Recall bias was examined and rejected as the source of these problems.

** A survey of 2039 persons in 606 households living near the
Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County, California revealed
significantly elevated rates for the following conditions: ear
infections; bronchitis; asthma; angina [chest pain]; skin rashes;
blurred vision; pain in the ears; daily cough for more than a month;
nausea; frequent diarrhea; unsteady gait; and frequent urination.[11]
Recall bias was examined and rejected as the cause of these problems.

** In Tucson, Arizona, a study of 707 children born with heart defects
revealed that 35% of them were born to parents living in a part of the
city where the water supply was contaminated with industrial solvents
(trichloroethylene [TCE], and dichloroethylene). The rate of birth
defects of the heart was three times as high among people drinking the
contaminated water, compared to people in Tucson not drinking
contaminated water.[12]

** A study of 296 women experiencing a spontaneous abortion during the
first 27 weeks of pregnancy, compared to 1391 women having live births,
revealed an association between spontaneous abortion and drinking water
contaminants (detectable levels of mercury, or high levels of arsenic,
potassium and silica).[13]

** Residents of Bynum, North Carolina, drinking raw river water
contaminated by industrial and agricultural chemicals, have developed
cancers 2.4 to 2.6 times more often than expected.[14]

To summarize: Epidemiological studies cannot prove a cause and effect
relationship. Nevertheless, available information indicates that
hazardous waste dumps can harm, and have harmed, humans living nearby.
Likewise, contaminated water supplies have harmed people.

The problem of waste dumps is continuing to grow. As the National
Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences said in 1991, "A
limited number of epidemiologic studies indicate that increased rates
of birth defects, spontaneous abortion, neurologic impairment, and
cancer have occurred in some residential populations exposed to
hazardous wastes. We are concerned that other populations at risk might
not have been adequately identified." And the Council said, "Millions
of tons of hazardous materials are slowly migrating into groundwater in
areas where they could pose problems in the future, even though current
risks could be negligible."[15]

There is a move afoot now in Washington, and in the mass media, to
divert attention away from the problem of toxic wastes. The goal seems
to be to cut funding for the federal Superfund program of toxic waste
cleanup. It seems clear that such a move, if successful, will result in
increased health costs for the American people.

--Peter Montague


[1] For a review of several studies, see Arthur C. Upton, Theodore
Kneip and Paolo Toniolo, "Public Health Aspects of Toxic Chemical
Disposal Sites," ANNUAL REVIEW OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 10 (1989), pgs. 1-

[2] Beverly Paigen, Lynn R. Goldman, Mary M. Magnant, Joseph H.
Highland, and A.T. Steegman, Jr., "Growth of Children Living Near the
Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal," HUMAN BIOLOGY Vol. 59 (June 1987),
pgs. 489-508. See also, Lynn R. Goldman and others, "Low Birth Weight,
Prematurity and Birth Defects in Children Living Near the Hazardous
2 (1985), pgs. 209-223; see also Beverly Paigen and others, "Prevalence
of Health Problems in Children Living Near Love Canal," HAZARDOUS WASTE
AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS, Vol. 2 (1985), pgs. 23-43. And see: Nicholas
J. Vianna and Adele K. Polan, "Incidence of Low Birth Weight Among Love
Canal Residents," SCIENCE Vol. 226 No. 4679 (December 7, 1984), pgs.

[3] G. Reza Najem and Lisa K. Voyce, "Health Effects of a Thorium Waste
Disposal Site," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 80 (April 1990),
pgs. 478-480.

[4] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Public
Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
CALIFORNIA: BIRTH DEFECTS STUDY (Atlanta, Ga.: Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry, 1990). See also: Gary M. Shaw and
others, "Congenital Malformations and Birthweight in Areas with
Potential Environmental Contamination," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL
HEALTH Vol. 47 (March/April 1992), pgs. 147-154, which showed increased
risk of malformations of the heart and circulatory system (though not a
risk of low birthweight) among children born to California mothers
residing in census tracts having waste disposal sites.

[5] Channing R. Meyer, "Liver Dysfunction in Residents Exposed to
Vol. 48 (1983), pgs. 9-13.

[6] Barry L. Johnson, "Testimony by Barry L. Johnson, Ph.D., Assistant
Surgeon General, Assistant Administrator, U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, Public Health Service, Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry [ATSDR], Before the Subcommittee on Superfund,
Recycling, and Solid Waste Management, United States Senate, May 6,
1993," pg. 10, citing various studies by ATSDR.

[7] John S. Neuberger and others, "Health Problems in Galena, Kansas: A
Heavy Metal Mining Superfund Site," THE SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL
ENVIRONMENT Vol. 94 (1990), pgs. 261-272.

[8] J. Cutler and others, "Childhood Leukemia in Woburn,
Massachusetts," PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTS Vol. 101 (1988), pgs. 201-205.
See also V.S. Byers, "Association between clinical symptoms and
lymphocyte abnormalities in a population with chronic domestic exposure
to industrial solvent contaminated domestic water supply and a high
incidence of leukaemia." CANCER IMMUNOLOGY AND IMMUNOTHERAPY, Vol. 27
(1988), pgs. 77-81; and: S. W. Lagakos and others, "An Analysis of
Contaminated Well Water and Health Effects in Woburn, Massachusetts,"
583-196. Because none of the chemicals in Woburn water were previously
known to cause leukemia, the leukemia association was questioned; see
B. MacMahon, "Comment on the Article, 'An Analysis of Contaminated Well
Water and Health Effects in Woburn, Massachusetts,'" JOURNAL OF THE
AMERICAN STATISTICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 81 (1986), pgs. 597-599.

[9] David Ozonoff and others, "Health Problems Reported by Residents of
a Neighborhood Contaminated by a Hazardous Waste Facility," AMERICAN
JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE, Vol. 11 (1987), pgs. 581-597.

[10] Clyde Hertzman and others, "Upper Ottawa Street Landfill Site
Health Study," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 75 (1987), pgs.

[11] Dean B. Baker and others, "A Health Study of Two Communites [sic]
Near the Stringfellow Waste Disposal Site," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL
HEALTH Vol. 43 (Sept./Oct., 1988), pgs. 325-334.

[12] Stanley J. Goldberg and others, "An Association of Human
Congenital Cardiac Malformations and Drinking Water Contaminants,"
1990), pgs. 155-164. See also: Cleo P. Loeber Mary J. C. Hendrix,
Steven Diez De Pinos, and Stanley J. Goldberg, "Trichloroethylene: A
Cardiac Teratogen in Developing Chick Embryos," PEDIATRIC RESEARCH Vol.
24 (1988): pgs 740-744. And: Brenda V. Dawson, Paula D. Johnson,
Stanley J. Goldberg, and Judith B. Ulreich, "Cardiac Teratogenesis of
Trichloroethylene and Dichloroethylene in a Mammalian Model," JOURNAL
OF THE AMERICAN COLLEGE OF CARDIOLOGY Vol. 16 (November 1, 1990), pgs.

[13] Ann Aschengrau and others, "Quality of Community Drinking Water
and the Occurrence of Spontaneous Abortion," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL
HEALTH Vol. 44 (September/October 1989), pgs. 283-290.

[14] J. Scott Osborne III, Carl M. Shy, and Berton H. Kaplan,
"Epidemiologic Analysis of a Reported Cancer Cluster in a Small Rural
Population," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY Vol. 132, No.[1] (July
1990), pgs. S87-S95.

[15] Anthony B. Miller and others, ENVIRONMENTAL EPIDEMIOLOGY, VOLUME
Academy Press, 1991), pgs. 10, 257.

Descriptor terms: hazardous waste disposal technologies; landfilling;
morbidity; mortality; studies; children; growth; love canal; niagara
falls, ny; ny; birth defects; liver disease; thorium; wayne, nj; nj;
atomic energy commission; doe; low birth weight; ca; liver disease;
hepatomegaly; solvents; hardemann county, tn; tn; dermatitis;
neurologic disease; pancreatic cancer; kidney disease; stroke;
hypertension; high blood pressure; heart disease; circulatory disease;
anemia; skin cancer; cadmium; lead; galena, ks; ks; leukemia; woburn,
ma; ma; eyes; ear; central nervous system; cleft palate; chromosomes;
lowell, ma; respiratory disease; colds; fatigue; cough; bowel
disorders; recall bias; hamilton, on; ontario, canada; bronchitis; skin
rashes; arthritis; angina; heart attack; tremors; cramps; spasms;
headache; dizziness; lethargy; anxiety; depression; insomnia;
irritability; restlessness; stringfellow acid pits; asthma; nausea;
diarrhea; urination; tucson, az; heart defects; trichloroethylene;
dichloroethylene; spontaneous abortion; reproduction; mercury; arsenic;
potassium; epidemiology; national research council; national academy of