The following is a personal story submitted to Civilian Exposure and published as part of our new series: “Contamination Chronicles: Personal Stories of Exposure”. If you would like to submit your story, you may fill out our form here or send directly via email to share-@-civilianexposure.org.
It was around 1971 – 1972 that I worked at GAF in what was then Beaverton, Oregon. I was a parts assembler and the youngest employee at GAF where they manufactured a toy called the View Master. I was seventeen. I worked as a journeyman cake decorator for Albertson’s and sang at clubs on the weekends. I was a high school dropout, however my mother later convinced me to get my GED. I enjoyed doing mundane tasks for GAF because of the crew that I worked with, which consisted mostly of women in their 30’s to 60’s who often spoiled me with treats and wonderful stories.
Little did we know that the degreaser that was being used on machinery was a toxic substance. It was trichloroethylene (TCE).
They dumped it in the field near the plant. This toxic substance seeped into the groundwater and into the wells that were used for drinking water. As I am sure that you know, TCE evaporates and can permeate through skin and into a person’s body too. We were surrounded by TCE and drinking it as well.
In 1992, I received a letter from the Mattel corporation, who had bought out GAF, offering to have their doctors examine my kidneys. They would pay for the procedure. I was 37 years old and my youngest son was 1. He was playing with Cheerios and sitting in his high chair while I read this. I wadded up the note and tossed it in the round file. My mother had worked for GAF as well and received the same form letter. We discussed it and decided that it was not of importance and did not like the idea of a corporation sending us like guinea pigs, to be prodded, poked and examined by their doctors, for some kind of toxin that we were exposed to 20 years prior. So she tossed her letter as well. We received a few more but continued to ignore the request.
In 2009, my son was staying with my parents to complete his last year in school. I had been accepted into Central Washington University as an undergraduate. He had been in an accident while practicing football. I met my parents and my son in the emergency room of a hospital near them. He had a great deal of pain on his right side. The doctor showed me his x-rays and said that they could find nothing wrong with him. I like to look at the whole picture and looked at the opposite side of the x-ray. I asked what the gray, mass was on the left side. The doctor did not know. I pointed out to the doctor that if someone has a bad tooth on one side of their mouth the pain may generate on the other side of their mouth and asked if this could also be possible that the gray mass, whatever it was, could be causing my son’s pain. He said it could and the following week they took a CAT scan and found a cyst in in my son’s kidney. They told me that it had no blood and no fat. Their decision was to leave it where it was.
My decision was research.
I, as a high school dropout, who had not yet started my undergraduate schoolwork, began a very long period of research on a topic that I did not choose. It chose me. Through bumping around and surfing the web for a few weeks, searching for anything that would give me an answer as to what the cyst was, I continued to come to the same conclusion.
He had Renal Cell Carcinoma. A deadly, slow growing cancer that at the time, most often showed up in people age 55-65, not 18. I argued with his surgeon and finally won. It was RCC. This was one of the most excruciating experiences, as a parent, that I have ever gone through. It was undoubtedly horrific for the entire family…especially my young son, Daniel.
Daniel had a partial nephrectomy, (partial removal of a kidney…leaving the other part for the cancer to grow in later on), and they removed all of the tissue that they believed was important to remove. In 2010, I was an undergraduate, with my own office in my apartment and was involved in a start-up corporation for off-shore geothermal energy. My plate was full. I needed to start a thesis for McNair’s and could not come up with a subject until one day when I was sitting in my office and wondering why my child got cancer.
Was it my fault? What had I done wrong?
I fed him very well. I protected him like a lioness. I bought safe toys and made sure that his environment was very clean. I used non-toxic supplies and was very particular about what I used for medications when he was sick. As a matter of fact, when I found out that I was unexpectedly pregnant at age 36, I went through hell to ensure his safety. I owned a talent/event corporation and I moved my offices that were located near a manufacturing plant to a mall, to make sure that my unborn baby would not be exposed to anything harmful. I was told that at age 36, that I must have a procedure called amniocenteses to make sure that my baby was not a deformed mess and was coerced to have that procedure done. I do not recommend that this procedure be done to any expectant mother. Simply horrific! I waited for weeks and received their conclusion that my son’s DNA was perfect.
While sitting in my office in my apartment on campus, crying about what I might have done to cause my son such misery, I, as a Christian woman, decided to say a little prayer. I had an epiphany a few minutes later and envisioned my son when he was 1 years old, playing with Cheerios on the tray of his high chair. Then I remembered a letter that I was reading at the time. Something about kidneys. It was like I could see the letter and what I remembered were the letters TCE.
I began my research by trudging through grueling formatting, constantly sending work in to various professors and receiving a plethora of corrections. Very frustrating. I asked a Biology professor if it was possible for a toxin like TCE to effect future children, not in-vitro, but later on in life. He said, absolutely. Why?
Because this type of toxin wraps around DNA and is transferred into the yet conceived child.
The title of my research was “Trichloroethylene: The Silent Massacre”. It was decently done, but not that great. I ended up speaking at conferences for McNair Scholars, the Political Science Department and for Douglas Honors College, around the nation. I was invited to speak at a conference in Washington DC to the Disease Cluster Alliance, in front of victims, advocates, attorneys, and organizations. I took a cab to Capitol Hill, walked into the office of Senator Merkley of Oregon and was ushered through a gathering of people to speak to the Senator. I told him about the GAF story and that the city had released the water from the wells into Fano Creek that flowed through a subdivision. My cousins had lived nearby. One had just passed away from pancreatic cancer and the other was dying from the last stages of renal cell carcinoma. Another cousin who lived there had a golden retriever that had played in Fano Creek and had just passed from cancer as well. I also spoke to the Senator about other disease cluster locations and about the energy project that I was involved in.
Nothing came from my discussion with the Senator. I ran out of funding, graduated with a BA in Political Science, after seeing my son arrested for robbing a drug dealer. I remember using all funding from student loans after paying for my rent and food to make sure that he had the food and supplies that he needed. I also remember leaving Honors classes to speak to him on the phone. He was going a little crazy. They kept him in the hole for months for his protection. I believe they also put him through chemo. My son had become addicted to opiates that the doctor had prescribed for his ongoing and excruciating pain from the keloids left from his operation. After being released, he became mysteriously paralyzed for two years. During which time, I supported him and encouraged him in music. So you see, the suffering from the disease is not all that his disease affected. It touched all facets of our lives.
My son soon realized his dream. I would have given my life to see him happy. He is currently signed with Sony Pictures, Netflix and many more, resides in LA and is a movie composer. I just walked with him on the red carpet of his first movie premier. I have two older sons. Successful, talented, and great men, both in the United States Navy, who I secretly worry about. One of the things that stays in the back of my mind is renal cell carcinoma and other forms of cancer and diseases that are caused by TCE.
Will my older sons suffer through this too? What about my grandchildren?
I was accepted into Vermont Law School twice, but the last time, even with a scholarship, I declined. I stayed here to help my son realize his dream. I opted to go to Liberty University online. I am in my second to last class prior to graduating with a Master’s degree in Public Policy. I intend to start a research and consulting firm. I was going to write my thesis on TCE, was accepted and had professors lined up to help me, but was overwhelmed with work and home problems. However, I recently left my overwhelming job as a Case Manager for Homeless Youth and last Thursday I sent the Graduate Registrar an email requesting for them to find a way, funding, etc. to allow me to stay long enough to start and complete a professional thesis on this topic. They told me that they would have an answer in a few days and that they have never had this type of request before. So chances may be slim.
I do have my undergraduate research on this subject. Most of it was on the history of laws having to do with TCE, but I also included the diseases that it causes and other tidbits of information. Camp Lejeune and military bases have been included in that research. As I mentioned, the work was not spectacular. My new research, if the funding is available, must focus on public policy asking:
“What one law could be implemented to solve this problem?”
I believe that toxins have been left on military bases that were closed, such as in Alaska, and toxins in water and soil on military bases across the nation and in rivers, lakes and ponds, etc. They are one of the number one reasons why there is so much disease, so much suffering. The Washington Post had a story in their Health and Science section in 2012 that stated that there would be an estimated 75% rise in cancer, worldwide by 2030. Is there any wonder why this might be true?
While our politicians focus on an ever changing weather pattern on this earth, our people are set up to perish from our own negligence, ignorance and lack of interest by the politicians that we elect to represent and protect us. Therefore, it is imperative to change the rules, clean up our environment and make sure that toxins like this are not sold under other names, with a continuation of a story like my own, where mothers cry over their children without knowing how this could happen to their child.
The 2012 Camp Lejeune law was signed by Obama, but has it done much of anything for our military families who were exposed? The rules that they have placed on how each military member can qualify for funding seems absurd. It does not appear that there is a firm grip on the devastation that has happened and that will happen if we do not act soon. Corporations have used the same chemical and have disposed of it in the same manner, leaving communities to suffer illnesses and death. TCE is not the only culprit, there are many chemicals that have been and are used. But as you have stated, TCE is prevalent. Something needs to be done and that starts with research.
Anyway, I have probably given too much information that is just personal experience and have ranted a bit, but you asked for my background on this subject and this is some of what my background is. It is an emotional subject. Disease is hitting and will hit harder unless something is done. Military families and families of all who are exposed through negligence of corporations, government and the military need to be taken care of. There should not have to be a fight for every penny that is needed.
They should be cared for.
Renal Cell Carcinoma continues to come back, time after time and can be cut out of a persons body. It does not respond to chemotherapy. My son has beat it a few times. He is now 27 years old, walking, composing music and happy but still dealing with pain.
I sincerely believe all of this is because of my exposure to TCE in 1972.
Note: The author currently resides in Oregon. This account/editorial is verbatim from the author, with only the omission of their name to preserve anonymity.