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


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.

“The effect of this exposure is cumulative. I don’t want to have to worry if I’ve screwed up my daughter’s genes,” said Wall, who suffers from Hodgkin’s disease and attributes her cancer to thorium exposure as a child. “I want my grandson to live to a ripe old age.”

Some West Chicago residents refuse to dwell on the fears or let them govern their everyday lives.

Debbie Pande and her husband, Dave, own a house along the banks of Kress Creek. After a heavy rainfall or a spring thaw the creek often surges over its banks and into the Pandes’ yard, bringing with it the contaminated sediment that caused the EPA to place the waterway on the Superfund list.

“We stayed here because we were uncertain of the physical harm,” Pande said. “All of our life savings are in the house. When we bought the land, we had no idea there was anything we needed to check out.”

In 1978, the Pandes bought three acres of property along Kress Creek and built a house. Debbie Pande said the radiation remains a concern, but she refuses to limit the activities of her children or make them live in fear of their surroundings.

“You make a home. You make a life. You make friends,” Pande said. “It is disheartening. You want to be removed from this mess, but you don’t want to move from where you are.”

Kerr-McGee stopped all production at the factory site in 1973, six years after the Oklahoma City-based company acquired the property.

The company said in a statement that it knew all along that there was radioactive material at the site and accepts responsibility for moving it.

Kerr-McGee is working on a plan to clean up the factory site at an estimated cost of $100 million, said company spokesman Dow Dozier.

The EPA is setting criteria for determining which residential sites will be cleaned up and to what extent.

“We want to start doing removals as soon as we can. It is unacceptable to have people living in this situation,” said Rebecca Frey, the EPA’s project manager for the West Chicago cleanup. “But it probably won’t begin until summer of next year.”

Cleanup of the Superfund sites will cost millions of dollars, which the EPA plans to recover from Kerr-McGee. No estimates on the total cost will be available until the cleanup is under way, Frey said.

Envirocare of Utah Inc. has applied with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to store the waste at a site about 80 miles from Salt Lake City. Envirocare hopes to have approval by July or August, said Charles Judd, a company spokesman.

But West Chicagoans, after years of delays in the battle to clean up their town, remain doubtful about the EPA’s assurances that the thorium waste soon will be shipped out.

“The day it’s going to leave people will say, ‘I don’t believe it. I’m so surprised,’ ” Kathy Smith said. “I’ll be surprised and very, very happy. We’ve lived with this for a long time.”