Public Health


Residents next door to the former Koppers wood-treating plant have complained about the environment allegedly contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and exposing them for decades.  
The plant released many chemicals, including creosote, as the facility operated near the primarily African American community located on the northeast side of Carbondale, Illinois.  
The community thinks the contamination caused by the mishandling of creosote at the plant since it was an operation in 1991 exposed them, and their concerns fell on deaf ears from the city and other government agencies. 
Darryl Weber, a retired electrician who lost his mother, Nannie Tisdale, to breast cancer after living near the plant for many years.  
Weber said the assessment completed by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) concluding that the environment posed no human risk.
“This is a blatant lie,” Weber said.
According to the IDPH, this federal agency reviews information about hazardous substances at waste sites and evaluates whether exposure to these substances might cause human risk. 
Cancer-patient seeks independent tests  
Weber said eight of 11 relatives in his family, including his mother, Nannie Weber, were poisoned by creosote while living near the plant for many years and suffered from cancer and death. 

I believe exposure to creosote causes cancer cases in my family. 

“My aunts had a study done and their reports said their cancer was due to the environment they came from,” Weber said. “It was not hereditary.” 
Weber’s aunt, Eva Tidwell, diagnosed with breast cancer and died in 2019, sought out independent testing in San Francisco, California, to see whether environmental or hereditary implications caused her disease.  
The clinical team that evaluated Tidwell included Michele Bernard and Radhika Dharnija.  
This team performed tests of 42 genes reviewed by a clinical molecular geneticist, Thomas Winder. 
The team analyzed breast cancer, prostate cancer, sarcoma, and four individual genes to assess Tidwell’s disease’s personal and family history. 
Tidwell’s clinical summary documented by Invitae, which offers health consultations about cancer and genetic illness, said there was a negative result for pathogenic sequence variants, deletions, or duplicates identified. 
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a government agency for cancer research, there was no sign of a pathogenic variant, a genetic alteration that increases an individual’s susceptibility to disease in Tidwell’s case.  

Tidwell’s cancer diagnosis was not due to genetic reasoning. 

Clinical summary
However, while the negative result concluded that Tidwell’s cancer was not due to her personal and family history, the summary said the result does not eliminate the possibility that her condition had a genetic component.  
“Clinical follow-up of this individual and their family members may still be warranted,” the summary said.  
Weber said his family’s cancer cases are an example of the poisoning of the people of Carbondale.  
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C., creosote is a wood preservative that controls wood degradation due to fungal rot, decay, molds, or insects, but when in contact with humans, can cause health issues.  
The Center for Disease Prevention and Control program under the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH), which plans, directs, and coordinates ways to protect people from environmental hazards, responded to a media inquiry about this matter.  
The NCEH said acute exposure to creosote to the skin might cause rash irritation, and eye exposure can result in chemical burns.  
“Ingestion of high levels via contaminated food or drinking water can cause burning in the mouth and throat, as well as abdominal pain,” the NCEH said.  
The NCEH also said acute exposure to large amounts might cause confusion, loss of consciousness, kidney or liver problems, convulsions, and death.  
“Long-term exposure to creosote may occur in certain occupational settings,” the NCEH said.  
The NCEH also said creosote is associated with skin and scrotal cancer, especially from long-term direct contact.  
“These levels are much higher than the possible exposure levels from contaminated groundwater, food, air, or soil,” the NCEH said.  
IDPH and other federal agencies conducted assessments under the law 
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), their assessment team collected relevant health and environmental data, community health concerns from the EPA, state and local health and other environmental agencies, the community, and responsible parties. 
U.S. Congress established the ATSDR in 1980 under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) Section 104, also known as the Superfund law, according to the EPA. 
This law set up a fund to identify and clean up our country’s hazardous waste sites while the ATSDR has been required by law to conduct a public health assessment, according to the ATSDR. 
“The aim of these evaluations is to find out if people are being exposed to hazardous substances and whether that exposure is harmful and should be stopped or reduced,” the assessment said.  
The first step in the evaluation is for the ATSDR scientists to review environmental data to see how much contamination is at a site, where it is, and how people might contact it. 
“Generally, ATSDR does not collect its own environmental sampling data, but reviews information provided by EPA, the governmental agencies, businesses and the public,” the assessment said. 
The assessment also said that if the review of the environmental data shows that people have or could encounter hazardous substances, ATSDR scientists evaluate whether or not these contacts may result in harmful effects. 
“The health impact to the children is considered first when evaluating a community health threat,” according to the assessment.   
“The health impacts other high-risk groups within the community such as elderly, chronically ill, and people engaging in high-risk practices also receive special attention during the evaluation,” according to the assessment.  
The ATSDR uses existing scientific information, including the results of medical, toxicologic, and epidemiologic studies and the data collected in disease registries, to determine the health effects of exposure, according to the ATSDR.   
Pathways to humans 
According to the assessment, the exposure points were near yards, basements, creek beds, and fish-eating through exposure routes such as dermal inhalation and ingestion.  
The assessment said that the receptor population includes nearby residents, recreational users, and fishers potentially exposed to the past, present, or future. 
According to the assessment, the estimated number of people exposed was 1,600 to groundwater, 20 to creosote material in Glade Creek, and 1,600 to waste material off the site. 
The completed exposure pathways were an on-site product, ambient air, and groundwater. 
There were an estimated 1,600 people possibly exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through inhalation emissions from the wood-treating operations.  
According to the assessment, ten people were exposed to groundwater from private wells and one person to soil at any time.  
IDPH cannot qualify past exposures because no environmental data exists, the assessment said.  
The highest levels of contamination were of pentachlorophenol and PAHs from shallow groundwater unit samples detected, according to the assessment.   
The assessment said low-level detection of toxins such as arsenic and lead. 
The maximum contaminant levels detected in on-site soils were PAHs and lead in the assessment.  
Exposure risk and liability 
Weber said there are lawsuits all over the country like his family’s case and other environmental exposure cases in the area. 

In the Anthony v. Koppers Co. case, defendants claimed that Koppers manufactured, sold, constructed, and installed coke ovens as a part of their industrial business, which handles chemical and manufacturing, in 1981.  

Several defendants also alleged that the emissions from the ovens caused him to contract lung cancer, which resulted in death. 
The causes of action were grounded in negligence, strict liability in tort, breach of warranty, and alleged defects of the ovens.  
However, during discovery, the defendants brought actions more than two years after the deaths occurred and a one-year statute of limitation applied to wrongful death actions in favor of Koppers.  

In the Angle v. Koppers Co. case, Rebekah Angle claimed Koppers exposed her to toxic chemicals, including creosote, released into the environment from railroad tank cars, trucks, and the Grenada facility in Mississippi in 2006. 

Angle said she lived close to the site and suffered injuries to her person and property through off-site migrations of creosote, chemical gas, soot, and aerosol droplets from on-site process operations.   
Angle sued because of these alleged uncontrolled releases, theories of negligence, intentional tort, trespass, private nuisance, and failure to warn.  
Beazer and Koppers argued that Angle got sick and connected the facility to the cause of her injury based on the statute of limitations. 
The court found that the statute of limitations began to run on Angle’s cause of action when she knew about her exposure symptoms such as headaches, hysterectomy, ovarian cysts, removal of ovaries, skin rashes, lumpectomy, and carcinoma of the breast. 
Not when she knew the cause, according to a court summary. 
The court found Angle’s claims were time-barred by the three-year statute of limitations, and she failed to carry the burden of proof and persuasion of the connection between her injuries and the plant. 
Sherrie Barnes lived throughout her life in a home adjacent to the plant.  
Beazer and Koppers tried to use the three-year statute that would bar Barnes’s claim.
But the court reversed the statute of limitations and found the company solely liable on Barnes’s negligence claim and awarded Barnes 785,000 dollars in compensatory damages.  
Weber said he thinks the responsible parties should make compensation. 
There are no open lawsuits against Koppers regarding pollution exposure from the Carbondale plant.  

Published by Clarissa Cowley

Claire is a Master of Science in Professional Media and Media Management graduate student with a specialization in multimedia journalism. She currently teaches web publishing, media arts performance and introduction to media production. She is a student managing editor of the GJR weekly digital newsletter reaching over 2,000 online subscribers. She is conducting research on an environmental and racial justice issue in Carbondale, IL for her thesis project.

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