Western Pennsylvania was full of mysteries and wonders for me as a child. My hometown was peppered with woods and creeks. They were a natural theme park for a little girl or boy. On my way home from West End Elementary School, I would detour with my friends to the little patch of woods between Crescent and Border Avenues to play tag. We would lose ourselves in fantasy weaving through.
At the end of my street was the flawless image of a beautiful grassy knoll. I loved it from afar. It was perfect enough to be a landscape painting, and I could not take my eyes off of it. The knoll was actually across a large creek and laid on the mirror side of the valley. Although it was also in my town (on the road to Wampum, the nearby township), my mother always responded the same when I asked her to take me there. It was too far away.
Just below the painting, one block from my house was a playground. I remember a monkey bars and lots of kids of all ages swinging and screaming from them. The playground was covered with a dust that got in our shoes. Our mothers yelled at us. But we loved to play on the large mountains of the brown kitty-litter like material that made the dust. There were tons of little bits that sparkled like jewelry. Finally, I was a little rich girl, or so I pretended as I stuck my hand in the brown material and the shiny specks trickled off my hand. Did the mountains occur there naturally? I wondered. Did they spring up from the ground like the giant Rockies? I assumed.
In reality, those mountains belonged to the factory on whose grounds the playground had been provided. This company graciously made playground was available to us at all hours, even though it sat inside the company fence. The gates were never closed. My brothers remember ballfields and spending most of their waking hours down there playing football and softball and whiffle ball, all seasons of the year. Behind the kitty-litter piles were railroad tracks. The bad boys would walk down to the tracks to smoke cigarettes. I never ventured too far beyond the playground. Although I liked the piles, anywhere beyond them gave me the creeps.
My neighborhood was a working class neighborhood of proud, hardworking Italians and Germans and Catholics who had many, many children. We were the only black family in the immediate vicinity. And we weren't Catholic. But we did have seven children. One day every summer, all the children from all over my West End neighborhood met under that the pastoral painting for the playground picnic. There were games and food and crafts. It was the best day of the year.
Sadly for me, my beloved playground closed when I was seven. It was moved to a less convenient location. The new location across the road and up the hill had no landscape painting as a backdrop. It had no giant piles of brown and shiny material for us to play in. A whole new set of families were the lucky ones who got to live next to the playground. And my old playground and the old factory that hosted it became a sad, lonley place. A ghost town.
I hadn't thought about the playground at the bottom of my street in decades, until yesterday, that is. My brother, who lives in our family home on 13th Street, told me he'd received a letter from the government. It was about the playground.
Years ago, I lived in Denver. I was a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency. That was where I first heard of Libby, Montana. Libby was the location of a vermiculite mine owned by a company called W.R. Grace. The vermiculite rock extracted from there, as it turns out, was laced with naturally-occuring asbestos. Libby miners, their wives, and their children have been dropping like flies over the last several years from illnesses stemming from asbestos exposure. Totally coincidentally, I saw two segments on NightLine about it two nights in a row a few weeks ago. The miners ingested the tiny fibers while they mined the vermiculite. They unknowingly brought the lethal fibers home on their clothing. Their wives washed that clothing commingled with the family wash. Everyone died.
Asbestos-related illnesses include asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, any of which may take up to 50 years to develop. (I read this on a mesothelioma web site.) Cigarette smoking increases the chances of developing one of these illnesses, because it impairs the lungs ability to expel foreign objects, such as asbestos fibers. (Or so I'm told.)
My brother had misplaced the letter he'd received from the government. But he remembered that the content was about the product the factory manufactured. Zonolite. I know enough about W.R. Grace to know that Zonolite was one of their trademark products. It was some sort of home insulation. I asked my brother, "Do you remember the name of the company?" He said no. I said, "Was it W.R. Grace?" YES! Yes, he said. My heart sank into my brand new embroidered French cowboy boots from Jubilee on West 8th.
W.R. Grace processed vermiculite from the Libby mine at 200 facilities across the nation, turning it into Zonolite. Of those 200 facilities, 28 processed a whopping 80 percent of the Libby vermiculite. The factory at the end of my street with my beloved playground beneath the beautiful landscape across the creek was one of those 28.
After getting the incomplete news from my brother, I drove from Western Pennsylvania to New York, straight to my wireless connection. Cruising through asbestos and superfund web sites, I found myself on the site of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry -- ATSDR. This agency is a part of the Centers for Disease Control. It was created to study the health of communities near superfund sites (for those of you who don't know American environmental law, these are the worst, most contaminated properties in the country). So. ATSDR's web site had a link for Libby, Montana. I clicked. My heart racing. I sped through the text that explained an investigation into the places that received the Libby vermiculite. The beats grew faster. Click. New Orleans, East Hampton, Massachusetts, . . . Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.
That Sunday night, I sat stiffly and silently in a state of catatonia for what felt like hours. It was all too surreal and painfully ironic. I had devoted my career to helping communities deal with health and environmental issues resulting from the disproportionate distribution of polluting sources in low income and people of color communities. All of a sudden, I was suited to be my own client. One day and one letter from the government uprooted my world as I'd known it and turned it on its head.
I spent most of the next day phoning my siblings to let them know they'd been exposed to asbestos and telling them to go to the doctor. I e-mailed them the ATSDR fact sheet for Ellwood City. It said that anyone who lived within a few blocks of the factory may have been exposed to asbestos when fibers were released during the processing. We lived one block away. It said that children who played in the piles of vermiculite may have been exposed to asbestos. It said to stop smoking, see a doctor, and tell her/him we'd been exposed to asbesots. Give her/him a copy of the fact sheet.
No where did it mention the playground. Did they not know? I called ATSDR to speak environmental professional to environmental professional. I was the second person to tell them about the playground. They had mailed out their fact sheet to residents in my town within a half mile or so of the factory. One person managed to read it to the end and make a phone call when they saw no mention of the playground. Just one person. I wonder if any of my other former neighbors read it. What about the Vitullos? They lived right next to the fenceline. Had they read it?
The ATSDR scientists asked me lots of questions about how the material looked. If it was darker, it was likely "waste rock." Waste rock was what was leftover after the vermiculite was processed. It had been difficult for the scientists to piece together what happened at the facility because it closed 30 years ago. But it seemed logical that the material we played in was the waste rock, since it had no value. People were free to take it and use it to line their driveways. It lined the ballfields at the playground. ATSDR thinks the piles are buried on site.
Processing the vermiculite concentrated the asbestos in that waste rock.
Tomorrow I visit the doctor.