A study of 27 New Jersey towns, released by the NJ Department of Health
last December, concludes that, in towns with toxic chemicals in their
water supplies, there were excessive rates of leukemia during the
period 1979-1984. Leukemia is cancer of the blood-forming cells.
The study looked at 27 towns in northern New Jersey, five of which have
badly contaminated water supplies, 7 of which have moderately
contaminated water, and 15 of which have clean water. The study found
clear evidence that four of the five towns with the worst water also
have excessive rates of leukemia (41 cases expected, 53 cases found),
especially among women. The excessive leukemias do not seem to strike
any particular age group.
The study avoids the conclusion that contaminated drinking water caused
the leukemias. The authors point out that other explanations are
possible. For example, the women who got leukemia may have worked for
companies that used chemicals carelessly, exposing their employees and
spilling chemicals on the ground, allowing contamination of local water
supplies. In this scenario, the occupational exposures, not the
drinking of polluted water, might have caused the disease.
Despite the study's reluctance to say bad water caused the leukemias,
when a reporter asked State Health Commissioner Molly Coye, "Is the
water in these towns safe to drink?," the Commissioner replied,
"Obviously, it's not safe to drink for a lifetime or we wouldn't have
consent orders for remediation."
The New Jersey study is the first of its kind because it covers many
towns, with a total population of nearly 700,000 (about 10% of the
state's population). One previous study, by researchers at Harvard
University, had shown a link between contaminated water and leukemias
among children in a single town--Woburn, Mass.
The findings of the New Jersey Health Department study are useful
because they establish one more link between drinking water and
disease, but even more important lessons can be learned from the New
The four most-contaminated towns are Hawthorne, Garfield, Lodi, and
Wellington. We'll focus on Hawthorne, a town of 20,000 people, many of
whom live in spacious homes beneath overarching oak trees.
In the early 1950s, the Inmont Chemical Company announced it would
build a large plant in Hawthorne, employing hundreds of people and
paying many thousands of dollars in local taxes. During the next
decade, three more chemical companies followed Inmont to Hawthorne. "We
thought the town fathers had found a perfect way to preserve our town,"
recalls Robert McKinley, 78, a 50-year resident of Hawthorne. "Now
we're paying for our ignorance."
The local Board of Commissioners is dominated by businessmen, including
several executives of local chemical companies. The mayor for the past
40 years has been Republican Robert Bay, now retired from his position
as an executive with the Essex Chemical Company in Clifton.
Mayor Bay defends the chemical companies, saying they are often accused
of things they didn't do. Others are not so generous, especially those
on the south end of town. For years they remember awaking to smells
"like rotten fish" and watching the paint flake off their cars.
Marjorie Fieldhouse stands on her porch, next to a rocking horse she's
saving for her grandchildren, and recalls phoning the mayor about an
odor problem. "He told me not to worry about it, that he wouldn't let
anything happen," she says. Then she adds, "I should have made a stink."
Vincent and Mary Hartung moved to Hawthorne in 1973 and raised their
large family, six sons and two daughters, in a rambling house at the
end of a cul-de-sac, with stands of trees running up the hill beyond.
Marlene Hartung was a strong, blonde, athletic young woman. She was a
cheerleader in high school and later she retained an interest in sports
and health. She liked to drink water. "She was a water freak," says her
brother Glen, "always telling us how good it was for us." "Yeah, she
was always telling me to drink water, not beer," her father says. But
in May, 1984, Marlene fell ill. Her doctor told her she had the flu,
until lab tests two weeks later revealed acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Marlene was a fighter. She said leukemia would never get her. Twice she
had bone marrow transplants, her brothers providing fresh bone marrow
through painful medical procedures. Chemotherapy followed--multiple
large injections of experimental drugs--leaving Marlene nauseous,
fatigued, irritable. She lost all her hair. Trips to hospitals in New
York, then to Seattle, nearly drove the Hartung family into bankruptcy,
but the people of Hawthorne pitched in. Friends held car washes and
raffles and saved the Hartungs from financial ruin.
But money could not save Marlene's life. After fighting the disease for
two years, she died in August, 1986, at age 27. Her brother Glen was
then a medical student. "We feel strongly that the water contributed to
her death. And we feel the borough was negligent in not warning
residents about the water." It was Glen Hartung's phone call that
initiated the first study of the problem by the NJ Department of
Health. After the initial study was completed, Glen says, "I was
stunned at the preliminary numbers on leukemia. And I got very, very
angry, especially when I found the commissioners knew in 1979."
The New Jersey state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first
reported water pollution in Hawthorne in 1979 but the state delayed six
years before closing three contaminated municipal wells (out of nine
that were found contaminated, among 22 the municipality uses). Tests
showed the wells contaminated with trichloroethylene,
tetrachloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride, and 1,1,1-trichloroethane at
levels ranging from 37 to 72 parts per billion (ppb).
Three chemical companies--Calgon Corporation, United Technologies, and
Inmont Chemical (a division of the West German conglomerate, BASF)--
have been investigated and blamed for contaminating Hawthorne's well
water. The state DEP ordered these firms to make payments to the
affected municipalities, or face fines triple the amount authorities
would spend to cleanse municipal drinking water. When Inmont Chemical
balked, in March, 1987, the state DEP said they were going to fine
Inmont $25,000 per day until they reached an agreement with local
authorities, but agreement was not reached for many months and no fines
have ever been levied. Although state officials are certain they have
found the responsible parties, no one is facing criminal charges, no
one is facing punishment of any kind, and the companies, with heads
held disdainfully high, are making payments to help clean Hawthorne's
water while denying all responsibility.
The report, DRINKING WATER CONTAMINATION AND THE INCIDENCE OF LEUKEMIA
is available from NJ Health Department, CN 360, Trenton, NJ 08625;
phone (609) 633-2043. See also, S.W. Lagos and others, "An Analysis of
Contaminated Well Water and Health Effects in Woburn, MA." JOURNAL OF
THE AMERICAN STATISTICAL ASSOCIATION, Vol. 81 (1986), Applications,
Descriptor terms: drinking water; water; chlorination; chlorine;
cancer; carcinogens; leukemia; ozone; studies; findings; nj; disease
statistics; alternative treatment technologies; occupational safety and
health; molly coye; harvard university; hawthorne, nj; garfield, nj;
lodi, nj; wellington, nj; inmont chemical company; chemical industry;
robert mckinley; robert bay; marjorie fieldhouse; vincent hartung;
death; death statistics; water pollution; leaks; chloroethylene;
tetrachloroethylene; carbon tetrachloride; 1,1,1-trichloroethane;
calgon corp; united technologies; fines; lawsuits; investigations;