Cleaning up the Ascon waste site’s nastiness
VIC LEIPZIG AND LOU MURRAY
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
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 email@example.com.
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