About 250 residents of Norwood, Delaware County, worried about a number of cancer and autoimmune cases in the borough and their proximity to a defunct landfill, crammed into an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informational meeting Thursday night that was mostly orderly but sometimes became rambunctious or emotional.
Many people said they had cancer, or had relatives with it or who had died of it. One woman said there had been six multiple sclerosis cases on a single street.
The Norwood Fire Company had to open four bay doors to accommodate the crowd, which spilled outside.
Anthony Stowman, 43, said he was diagnosed with MS when he was a senior in high school. He grew up in Norwood, just west of Philadelphia International Airport. As a child, he said, he and his friends played around the old landfill, next to a park.
“We lived on Lee Road, which led right up to the park," Stowman said before the meeting. “Our crawl space was flooded every time it rained.” He said he wonders if the water was contaminated by the landfill.
Stowman said he knew of three women on his street who also had MS. The husband of one of those women died of brain cancer, he said.
Disease clusters are notoriously hard to correlate with a single source, but the volume of complaints brought federal officials to the area beginning in 2016 to examine the landfill and the surrounding area.
“I can assure you EPA has heard your concerns, and we’ve taken the right steps as to whether there’s an environmental component to your health concerns,” said Joe Vitello, the EPA’s site assessment manager for the Norwood Landfill.
Vitello said soil in parts of the landfill and nearby residential properties was sampled, but the results did not raise immediate health concerns. “Current data does not indicate contamination found in the landfill or residential soil poses a threat to human health,” he said.
The Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry is also evaluating cancer and MS levels in the area and expects to report next year.
Vitello said the assessment is ongoing and more sampling will be conducted. As of now, he said, the site does not appear to warrant inclusion on the National Priorities List as a Superfund site.
The site is two old dumps, one of about 10 acres used from 1950 to 1960 and the other of 15 acres used in 1960 and 1961, Vitello said. The dumps operated before modern regulations and record keeping. Vitello said the EPA does not know what was dumped there, noting residents had mentioned laboratory waste and contaminated fill.
Residents said they saw dumping at the site after those years, questioned how deep the samples were taken, and noted a 2018 consultant’s report to the EPA that showed some soil samples contained concentrations of contaminants such as benzo(a)pyrene above residential standards. PCBs at levels above standard were also detected, as were some pesticides and arsenic.
Mark Gonzalez attended with his wife, Peggy. Their daughter Sarah, 5, died recently of brain cancer.
“Our house is right across from that dump,” Gonzalez said.
After the meeting, Peggy Gonzalez shouted at Vitello, “What if it was your family?”
Barbie Carr, whose husband, Leonard, died of brain cancer, asked Vitello if he had walked through the site. Vitello, who assumed his current role a year ago, said he had not. Some in the crowd jeered. One couple yelled that the EPA would have investigated more thoroughly if its officials’ had cancer.
Compounding residents’ concerns is that the borough is off Darby Creek, downstream from the Lower Darby Creek Superfund site that combines long-closed landfills in Philadelphia known as Clearview and Folcroft.
Most residents get their drinking water through Aqua Pennsylvania, whose wells are beyond a four-mile radius of the site, Vitello said, and which does not draw from local groundwater or wells.
Lori Menna, who started norwoodlandfill.com in 2016 to inform residents, said it was frightening that there is no government documentation about how big the landfill was or what it contained. The EPA used aerial photos to assess the landfill’s size.
“A lot of my teachers from Norwood School passed away from cancer,” Menna, who no longer lives in the area, said before the meeting. “I was suspicious."
Originally, she suspected the Lower Darby Creek site, but became convinced the Norwood Landfill, where she remembered dump trucks unloading, might also be linked to health problems. Children played in and around the site after it was closed, she said.
Julie Dirkes, who lived with her parents on East Winona Avenue from 1975 to 1999, has polycythemia vera, a slow-growing blood cancer. Her father, who worked at Boeing in Ridley Township, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma., she said, and her mother had a double mastectomy after precancerous cells were detected.
Dirkes, who has moved away, said she and other children played in the area of the landfill.
“I would see 55-gallon drums scattered here and there,” Dirkes said before the meeting. “I’m normally skeptical, and I’m a pragmatist. But it is odd. There are too many coincidences. It’s enough to raise an eyebrow."