On March 3, 2015, Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford held an open forum on health issues for the residents of the neighborhood surrounding the former Durez Plastics facility on Walck Road. It was held at the Knights of Columbus Banquet Hall on Erie Avenue in North Tonawanda, New York. Approximately fifty current and former residents of the neighborhood braved the blustery winter weather to attend.
Until Durez closed its doors in the 1990s, a variety of toxic chemicals were used in the manufacturing of plastics and other materials. The site is surrounded by residential properties on its northeast boundaries, residential and light commercial properties on its southwest and south boundaries, and industrial properties on its east and southeast boundaries, including the former National Grinding Wheel.
Volunteers from the Knights of Columbus made everyone feel welcome. Lawyers and staff from Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford were present, and light refreshments were provided for the guests. Dr. Mary Reid from Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Dr. Paul Kostyniak from the University at Buffalo’s Toxicology Research Center were invited to comment on health and environmental concerns regarding chemical pollution from the plant. Law partner John N. Lipsitz explained that between 1959 and 1979 Durez used thousands of tons of asbestos to make plastic molding compound, which was sold throughout the United States. Durez combined asbestos with other raw materials in giant mixers. Dust collecting units were used to siphon off the dust from these mixers. However, asbestos escaped into the neighborhood contaminating the air surrounding the plant and settling on nearby surfaces.
Based on the information presently available it is apparent that concentrations of asbestos fibers permeated the streets, fields, playgrounds, homes and businesses for many blocks around the perimeter of the plant grounds.
After discussing asbestos contamination and the several related cases of mesothelioma among area residents, Mr. Lipsitz turned to soil and groundwater contamination in the neighborhood. Until 1971, Durez manufactured phenol from formaldehyde and benzene. Some of the by-products of this manufacturing process, known as the Raschig Process, contained carcinogenic dioxins and furans. Contamination of the soil and groundwater continued even after the Raschig Process was dismantled in 1971. Although the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation currently reports that soil sediments no longer present any significant health risks, some residents at the forum were clearly skeptical about such official assurances.
From 1930 until approximately 1973, Occidental Chemical and its predecessor companies owned and operated 14 separate disposal sites on the grounds of the Durez plant. The company disposed of nearly 28,000 tons of industrial waste at this site, and a substantial amount of this waste was dumped, without containers, in liquid or solid form. Wastes included quantities of phenol tar, including a substantial amount containing chlorinated benzene; phenol bearing material, including phenolic resins and molding compounds; and calcium aluminum oxide and calcium phosphate catalyst. Other organic compounds suspected to be present at the Durez site include toluene, xylene, benzene and other toxic substances.
Dioxins and furans seeped into the plant’s storm and sanitary sewers and ultimately entered the Pettit Creek Flume, which empties into the Niagara River. The Pettit Creek Flume is one of the primary storm sewers in North Tonawanda. It runs near many residential and public properties, including the former Lowry Middle School and Gilmore Elementary School.
A number of people who attended the forum discussed their concerns regarding groundwater and soil contamination in their neighborhood, particularly focusing on residential basements, backyards and drainage ditches. Residents gave personal accounts of their experiences with unusual environmental conditions. Some people reported that black sludge would seep into their basements during heavy rainfalls. Others talked about areas in the neighborhood where grass never grew and the ground never froze. Many people who grew up in the neighborhood during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, talked about the drainage ditch where they played as children and reported that the water was curiously colorful. A number of people talked about their health issues and concerns, and they commented on the unusually high incidences of leukemia, brain cancer, breast cancer and thyroid cancer affecting their neighbors.
Dr. Paul Kostyniak responded to questions about how the body absorbs chemical substances from the environment. Dr. Kostyniak currently serves as the Director of the University at Buffalo’s Toxicology Research Center, and his primary research program has focused on the toxicology of heavy metals, chlorinated organics and antidote development.
Dr. Reid provided an overview of how cancer clusters are investigated and the ways in which Durez residents can report suspected cancer clusters. Dr. Reid also talked about the challenges of investigating a cancer cluster and the process by which residents can conduct health surveys. Mary Reid, MSPH, PhD, is the Director of Cancer Screening and Survivorship at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and she is currently a Professor of Oncology in the Department of Medicine.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a cancer cluster as a “greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.” A cancer cluster may be suspected when family members, friends and neighbors have been diagnosed with the same or related types of cancer. Because elevated numbers of any particular cancer can occur in any neighborhood by chance, only the rare cancer cluster is confirmed following a detailed scientific investigation.
Mr. Lipsitz’s presentation was followed by a lively session of questions and comments from those in attendance. No one present at the forum could recall the last time so many neighborhood residents had come together to exchange information about unexplained health issues in the neighborhood, and for this reason alone the forum can be considered a success.