Discounted casualties

April 26th, 2000
3. Death at 30

High cancer rate in daughter's generation
The limits of a personal survey

*The interviewee in this story prefers to remain anonymous to avoid possible repercussions from other Concord residents more concerned with property values than a safe environment. Her name, her daughter's name and the street name have been changed.

Turning off a road running through a dusky forest, I drove up the driveway to my destination, the home of Louise O'Brian.

O'Brian met me at the front door. "You came all the way from Hiroshima?" Studying my business card, she sat down at her chandelier-lit dining room table.

"Actually, for some years I haven't talked to anyone about my survey--and I've never spoken to a journalist about it. As an amateur, no matter what I studied, I couldn't prove any causal relationship between Starmet Corporation and my daughter's death."

A painstaking, street-by-street record

"This is what I found out about cancer patients in the area." She spread three large charts on the table. They were titled "Incidence of Cancer - Lived in Concord 10 Years or More." For each street, O'Brian had carefully entered the following information: type of cancer, year of onset, age of onset, and whether or not the patient had died.

O'Brian lives near the south-central tip of Concord, Massachusetts, about three kilometers (less than two miles) downwind of Starmet Corporation (the former Nuclear Metals Co.), which is on the southwest tip. "Our family moved here in 1966. Our oldest daughter was four and Jeannine, who died of cancer, was three. Our son was born in Concord that year."

The houses in O'Brian's neighborhood were all built around that time. Fewer than 100 houses stood on the 17 streets that she surveyed. Of that total, she was able to confirm 54 cancer patients as of 1997. "The strangest thing was that among the seven households on this street, three people contracted cancer in their 20s and one in his 30s. Three of the four contracted lung cancer." She showed me the record for Thomas Road, the first on the list.

As production climbed, so did cancer

"Because Thomas Road is a cul-de-sac, it doesn't have much traffic, so it was a good place for the children to play." The children she referred to were growing up in the 1970s, the years Starmet began full production of DU penetrators.

Just as Starmet negligently dumped DU sludge and contaminated water that polluted its groundwater and soil, the company also clearly contaminated surface soil outside its premises by releasing minute DU particles from its smokestacks.

In 1994, soil samples were taken by the local grassroots group Citizens' Research & Environmental Watch (CREW) and sent to a laboratory in northwest New Jersey specializing in radioactive contamination. The laboratory reported that a maximum of 18.9 times the natural local level of DU (1 pico curie) was detected at six locations ranging 300 to 1300 meters (about 330 to 1420 yards) from the company's property. DU particles from the other factory in Colonie, New York were detected roughly 42 kilometers (26 miles) from the factory site.

"Jeannine, a professional nurse, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986, when she was 23. She wondered, 'How did I, a non-smoker, get lung cancer in my 20s?' She was brave till the end, but in October 1993 it metastasized to her liver, and she died."

It was 1995, two years after her daughter's death, that O'Brian began to suspect Starmet Corporation. The local paper reported the high cancer incidence in Concord. O'Brian began her study to learn why her daughter died and to sublimate her despair through public service.

Displeased residents

However, some new residents expressed discomfort with O'Brian's proposed survey. "If you do that, our houses will drop in value."

Their strong resistance almost dissuaded her, "But at some deep level, most of the families who had lost loved ones to cancer were wary of Starmet. Even the ones who couldn't voice it."

Talking about Jeannine's death seemed to stir something in O'Brian. As I left, she said, "The atomic bomb brought a lot of suffering to the people of Hiroshima. They would probably understand how I feel..."

Starmet corp. map

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