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Death in the Sandbox : West Chicago, Ill., Neighborhood Quakes Over Radioactive Soil


WEST CHICAGO, Ill. — John Smith cut down the maple trees in his back yard and poured a concrete slab over the spot where his family used to plant a vegetable garden.

In his neighborhood, that's considered a home improvement.

For more than 25 years starting in the 1930s, residents unwittingly spread low-level radioactive waste throughout the suburb of West Chicago, using the byproducts of a local factory as landfill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund cleanup list now includes a city park, a creek and the back yards of more than 110 homes--including Smith's.

"You start to think, my God, have I doomed my children?" said Smith, whose four children range from 5 to 12. "No one knows what the effects of this will be later in life."

When people get together in the neighborhood of modest, well-kept homes, the talk often turns to fears of radiation and the cancer they believe it causes.

Like many of their neighbors, Smith and his wife, Kathy, feel trapped in the home they have been trying to sell for more than three years.

"No one has even called about it for two years," Smith said. "We have to tell anyone interested in buying it about this problem."

From about 1931 to 1958, the Lindsay Light & Chemical Co. extracted radioactive thorium and radium from ores at its West Chicago factory site. The thorium was used to make gaslight mantles that glowed when heated.

Builders, landscapers and homeowners took the sandy, dirt-like radioactive mill tailings from the factory and used them in fill throughout West Chicago and unincorporated DuPage County.

Today, the 43-acre factory site is ringed by a fence, with yellow warnings posted along the perimeter:

Caution Radioactive Materials

Inside is a barren field. Outside, the road is scarred by ruts and potholes. City officials say they can't repair streets without dislodging the radioactive material beneath them.

Along the streets, homeowners live with the fear that their yards could kill them.

Prolonged exposure to thorium radiation has been linked to increased incidence of leukemia, breast cancer, lung cancer and skin cancer, said Dr. Arthur Upton, a professor and chairman of environmental medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

A study by the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1991 found a greater than expected incidence of some cancers among West Chicago residents. From 1985 to 1988, the study found three times as many cases of melanoma, a type of skin cancer, among men than expected in a similar population. The incidence among women for lung cancer and among men for colorectal cancer were almost double the rates expected, the study found.

For Smith, concrete is the best hope of shielding his family from these health threats.

It's an unusual solution, but concrete blocks radiation effectively, EPA officials say.

Several of Smith's neighbors face similar problems, though most don't plan to spend the almost $20,000 the family invested last summer in the concrete, an oversize garage and landscaping that now cover the Smiths' back yard.

"We just try to keep the kids out of the yard," said Sue Smith, a neighbor--no relation--who has been told that a third of her yard is contaminated.

"This may sound strange, but mostly we tell them to play in the street. It's safer."

West Chicago--a town of about 15,000 people located 30 miles from Chicago--was founded as a railway town and retains a working-class, family-oriented makeup.

The area--a contrast of forest preserves and high technology--is bordered on one side by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and located only a few miles from Argonne National Laboratory. A sign at the city limits proclaims "West Chicago--Where History and Progress Meet."

For Thomas and Sharon Fawell, the fears held by families such as the Smiths came true when their daughter, Jennifer, died Nov. 1 at age 34 after battling cancer for 17 years.

In 1960, the Fawells moved into a house previously owned by one of the top businessmen with Lindsay Light. The executive, who eventually died of leukemia, had spread thorium tailings throughout his yard.

In 1986, Jennifer Fawell sued Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp., the current owner of the factory site, contending that the waste in her back yard caused her Hodgkin's disease. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1988; the terms were not disclosed.

"I can still remember her playing in her sandbox, which we later found out was located over the worst spot," Sharon Fawell said. The Fawells' yard was excavated down to 4 feet in some areas when Kerr-McGee voluntarily removed and replaced the radioactive dirt during a cleanup in the 1980s.

Judy Mileski Wall's childhood memories also are marred by fears of thorium. Her pleasant recollections of swimming and fishing in Kress Creek, near her childhood home in unincorporated West Chicago, are spoiled by knowledge that the creek now is on the EPA Superfund list.

Wall also remembers watching her mother spread radioactive mill tailings in the family's strawberry garden.

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