Toxic Chemical Cache Alarms Neighbors

January 06, 1991|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

GAITHER — Though assured by health officials that chemicals found in the home of a man who died here three weeks ago pose little risk, neighbors reacted angrily to the news and remain concerned that the materials contaminated their own properties.

County and state health officials told more than 50 residents at a Wednesday meeting in the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Hall that they have seen no evidence of any radiation hazards or any leakage or dumping of chemicals kept by PhillipSmall in his Patapsco Road basement and shed.

However, residents remain skeptical and want their land and watertested for chemicals.

"Why are people allowed to do things like this in their home?" asked Pennie Price, who lives in the 7600 block of Patapsco Road, four houses down from the Smalls.

So far, chemicals found include corrosives, flammable gases and liquids, and low-level radioactive materials, such as thorium nitrate and uranium oxide.

State and county authorities said no law prohibits people from keeping such chemicals in their homes.

Small died Dec. 16 at age 59 of pancreatic cancer. About two weeks later, his wife, Lorraine, discovered the chemicals in a storage area of their basement and alerted county authorities.

Small ran a business out of his home, testing water and septic-systems, but most of the chemicals were not those he would have used in that work, Walter Lee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

He said Small had an avid interest in chemistry and had been storing the chemicals for seven years, hoping to start a commercial lab of his own.

"Don't you think that's kind of strange?" Price's husband, John, asked. He and others scoffed at the notion of collecting chemicals.

"A good cook has all kinds of extra ingredients in the kitchen she doesn't use every day," said Frank Henderson, Superfund program director for the Maryland Department of theEnvironment.

Henderson said the only reason the chemicals have been classified as hazardous "waste" is because the family has no use for them.

One woman said that she didn't believe taxpayers should bear the cleanup's cost and that Small's widow should pay for it.

Henderson said that the federal Superfund money to be used comes from taxes levied on industries which create hazardous materials but that Environmental Protection does try to recover any money it can.

Small's death also has generated neighborhood rumors, though Henderson said no connection has been made between the man's death and the chemicals he collected.

"There's a rumor Small died of radiation poisoning," said John Price, who added that he doubted pancreatic cancer could kill Small so quickly.

However, Lee said pancreatic cancer cankill quickly if it spreads to the liver, as it did in Small's case.

For the next 10 days or so, EPA and MDE workers will be removing the 500 to 1,000 bottles of chemicals in the Smalls' basement and shed.

The chemicals are no more exotic than would be found in a typical college chemistry lab, Lee said.

"Everything was right where it should be. It's right where I would put it if I had a lab," he said.

The radioactive materials were sealed, and radiation was detected only when a Geiger counter was held one-half inch from the jar, indicating no danger to the neighbors, Henderson said.

Lee said a list of the chemicals won't be complete until workers are done removing them from the property, and it won't be official until confirmed at a licensed disposal facility before being burned.

The priority is getting the materials out of the house so that if there is contamination, it won't continue, said Charles Zeleski, assistant director of the Environmental Health Bureau of the county Department of Health.

Hesaid officials also will investigate whether any laws were broken orthe chemicals had any effect on neighbors or the environment.

Initially, the department will test water and soil on the Smalls' property, adjacent properties and any sites where people suspect chemicals may have been dumped, Zeleski and Henderson said.

If the Health Department finds any contamination, it will check a larger radius, Zeleski said.

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