Diatribes - Computer, Economic & Political

This blog is really just for me. If you find something interesting on it, leave me a comment. If you disagree with something, let me know what and why. In this blog I am just putting some of my thoughts for computers, the economy, politics, and other topics in writing.

05 September 2007

A Discovery in Bloomington

My wife and I moved to Bloomington Indiana early this summer. One of the first things we noticed, other than all the hippies, is what seems to be a high rate of birth defects. In our church most of the healthy children were born elsewhere. Of those couples who have had children here, again, we noticed a high rate of birth defects. One baby must eat through a feeding tube, one couple lost their second child very late in their pregnancy (not a normal miscarriage), one couple’s child has had a major issue with his kidney, one couple is pregnant with a baby that has full triploidy syndrome (which is fatal), and the list goes on. Of course the frequency isn’t 100%, but it is really high.

My family has had experience, not with birth defects, but with weird health issues—of my 5 siblings, one had cancer and survived, one has juvenile arthritis, one has ovarian cysts, and we lost another to cancer. All of my siblings are younger than me, and all of these issues developed in teenage years or before. We still wonder if a nearby landfill could be to blame, or something else. We don’t know, and we’ll probably never know, but that is probably the reason I’m naturally suspicious of health problems that develop with high frequency.

The issue of birth defects is of particular concern to us because we are considering having a child soon, and we, like everyone else, want our child to have the best chance possible at happiness and comfort in life. We’ve looked around for evidence of what might cause this, but, though many people had noticed the frequency of birth defects, no one knew of why. The internet seemed likewise silent. All the Bloomington, IN hits revolved around IU, and when checked with “birth defects”, an ambulance chasing law firm came up.

So I was reading digg.com, like I do every morning, and I came across a link to an old “TV Funhouse” from SNL. I’d seen it before, it is about major corporations controlling media for their own benefit. At one point in the video, PCBs are mentioned as a harmful substance dumped by GE and Westinghouse. Since I like to know a little bit about everything, I thought I’d look up PCBs at my favorite source—Wikipedia.

I read about why Polychlorinated biphenyl was used, and what its properties are—all very interesting. As I’m scrolling down I see “Large Scale Contaminations.” The first instance is in the upper Hudson river—which is famous for its high level of pollution. No surprise there. The next instance is, guess what, Bloomington Indiana. Here is the relevant quote:

From the late 1950s through 1977, Westinghouse Electric used PCBs in the manufacture of capacitors in its Bloomington, Indiana plant. Reject capacitors were hauled and dumped in area salvage yards and landfills. Workers also dumped PCB oil down factory drains which contaminated the city sewage treatment plant. The City of Bloomington gave away the sludge to area farmers and gardeners, creating anywhere from 200 to 2000 sites which remain unaddressed. Over 2 million pounds of PCBs were estimated to have been dumped in Monroe and Owen Counties, making it the biggest concentration of PCBs in the world. Although federal and state authorities have been working on the site remediations, many areas remain contaminated. Concerns have been raised regarding the removal of PCBs from the karst limestone topography, and regarding the possible disposal options. To date, the Westinghouse Bloomington PCB Superfund site case does not have a RI/FS (Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study) and ROD (Record of Decision), although Westinghouse signed a US Department of Justice Consent Decree in 1985.

Yikes! So I google Bloomington Indiana superfund, and lo and behold a ton of hits come right up about superfund sites dealing with PCB contamination in Bloomington. Not to be deterred, I read more. It turns out that PCBs get into the air, and generally affect humans that way (and I thought it was our nasty tap water). A document citing the EPA for “callous disregard for human life and health” at one of the Bloomington superfund sites dated 1997 says “the memo does not say how high the PCB levels are in the air but only that they exceed one microgram which is already fifteen times greater that the Superfund target risk level of one per million.”

So then I googled “birth defect” pcb. Guess what, another landslide of information. The NY Times carried an article in 1988 about a PCB spill in Taiwan causing widespread birth defects. The Times writes “Researchers said this was the first well-documented demonstration that PCB's can cause birth defects in humans, and it is one of the few instances of any environmental pollutant causing such defects.” Birthdefects.org (whom we’d expect to be biased towards finding birth defects) writes:

“widespread human toxicity occurred after consumption of PCB contaminated rice oil in Japan and China… follow-up studies of children exposed in utero to PCB have been reported by several researchers. Rogan and colleagues studied over 100 Taiwanese children conceived in the 5 years after their mothers had been poisoned by PCBs and their contaminants, the polychlorinated dibenzofurans. The children had a significant excess of ectodermal defects and developmental delays. In the U.S., studies have reported that at the upper end of exposures in the general population, there is evidence of motor impairment in newborn infants, motor delay in 6 and 12 month olds and impaired visual recognition memory in 7 month olds.”

As it turns out there is an entire active organization dedicated to opposing PCBs in Monroe County, Indiana (where Bloomington is located). COPA – The Coalition Opposed to PCB Ash in Monroe County, Indiana—maintains an active and up-to-date website dealing with this problem. The Monroe County Library also keeps an entire section, online and in the library, dedicated to PCB news and reports.

I haven’t uncovered some kind of conspiracy. All of this evidence is well documented, and may be well understood by anyone interested. But it worries me nonetheless. What Will my wife and I do? I don’t know, at some point we may decide it is worth the risk. We may look to transfer law schools, or just wait until we live elsewhere. I just wonder how frequent this kind of thing is—and how many people it affects.


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