Cleaning up the Ascon waste site’s nastiness


Something may be seriously amiss in southeast Huntington Beach.

According to a recent report in the Orange County Weekly, four

children from that area died between February 2000 and June 2003 of a

deadly brain cancer called brainstem glioma.

This is an exceedingly rare cancer. Data from the Central Brain

Tumor Registry of the United States indicates that only six out of

every million children younger than 15 are diagnosed each year with

this invariably fatal cancer. Yet there have been four cases in

southeast Huntington Beach in recent years.

We know that a cluster of cancers in one geographic area doesn’t

necessarily mean that there is something in the immediate environment

that caused it. People who contract cancer aren’t uniformly

distributed over the map. We also know that it is impossible to

gather meaningful statistics with only four cases.

The causes of most childhood brain tumors, including brainstem

gliomas, are unknown. But we do know that exposure to certain

chemicals can cause cancer. Our industrialized society provides a

multitude of opportunities for exposure.

A prime candidate for a source of cancer-causing chemicals in

southeast Huntington Beach is the Ascon/NESI dump, a California EPA

Superfund toxic waste site at the southwest corner of Hamilton Avenue

and Magnolia Street. It seems suspicious to us that four children who

lived and played near this toxic waste dump contracted an extremely

rare cancer.

The 38-acre Ascon site has served as a dumping ground for a

variety of liquid and solid wastes since 1938. Early deposits were

mostly waste from oil-drilling operations. From 1957 to 1971,

however, the toxics that were dumped included industrial hazardous

wastes such as chromic acid, sulfuric acid, aluminum slag, phenolic

compounds and styrene.

Disposal of hazardous waste stopped in 1971. After that, inert

materials such as abandoned vehicles, asphalt, concrete, metal and

other debris were dumped until the site closed in 1984. In light of

today’s values for coastal real estate, it’s incredible to us that

someone would have chosen a site so near the ocean for a toxic waste

dump. It is also incredible -- disturbing is a better word -- that a

community park, an elementary school and a high school were built

right across the street from it.

The Ascon site currently has five 25-foot-deep lagoons of liquid

petroleum waste. A plume of hydrocarbons has spread out underground

from these lagoons. More than a half-dozen pits of toxic waste are

buried there, plus one open pit that appears to hold mostly styrene

tar. After local residents complained of the smell from the open

styrene pit, it was covered in 1988.

The presence of the styrene pit raised a red flag in our minds.

When styrene is polymerized, it is a safe plastic that can be used to

make Styrofoam food and beverage containers and polystyrene, the

plastic used in Lego building blocks, CD cases, and many other useful

and nontoxic items. But recent reports suggest that the styrene

monomer may be bad news.

In studies of styrene toxicity done in the late 1970s, scientists

found that they could feed enormous amounts of styrene to rats and

mice with very little ill effect for most of the animals. According

to a study done by the National Toxicology Program in 1979, styrene

didn’t cause cancer, except in one strain of mice where it caused

lung cancer. Four rats developed brainstem gliomas when they were fed

styrene, but four rats weren’t enough to conclude that styrene causes

brain cancer. At that time, styrene seemed relatively safe.

Some newer research studied the impact of inhaled, rather than

ingested, styrene, and the results are cause for concern. Mice

developed tumors of the respiratory system and rats developed hearing

loss when exposed to styrene fumes. In humans, inhaled styrene causes

hearing loss and can negatively affect nerve and brain function.

For some time, styrene has been a suspected carcinogen, but the

link between styrene and cancer in humans is tenuous. A study

published this February in the American Journal of Industrial

Medicine looked at workers who were occupationally exposed to styrene

between 1959 and 1978. The workers had a higher incidence of urinary

tract cancers and respiratory diseases, with increased deaths from

cancers of the esophagus and prostate. Again the numbers were small

and the researchers had to acknowledge that their observations could

be due to chance.

At the Ascon site, an oil worker became ill after contacting water

running off the site. Ground squirrels living on the site appear,

from the condition of their coats, to be in poor health. Styrene may

not be the main culprit, but it’s pretty obvious that there is

something nasty at the Ascon site that can adversely affect health.

The scientific community has begun looking at potential risks of

inhaled styrene too recently to make any connection between styrene

and childhood brain cancers, if indeed any link exists. But styrene

isn’t the only potentially hazardous substance at Ascon.

Investigation is ongoing. CalEPA recently found a 50-year-old tank of

improperly stored flammable fuels that they didn’t know was there.

After many years of delay, it appears that the Ascon site is

finally going to be cleaned up. But we hope that the agencies

responsible will not simply assume that styrene is safe. We hope that

CalEPA will take adequate precautions to avoid exposing residents to

styrene fumes and other hazards during cleanup.

* VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and

environmentalists. They can be reached at