PITTMAN, N.J. — PITMAN, N.J. - Medical investigators poring over thousands of birth records from households near a former toxic waste dump in southwestern New Jersey have found unusually clear evidence of a link that is often hard to measure - between industrial chemicals in the environment and their impact on human health.
Federal and New Jersey health officials have reported that they found a significant drop in birth weight and a doubled incidence of pre-term births in infants born to women who, in the early 1970s, lived near the Lipari landfill in Gloucester County, which went on to hold the No. 1 spot on the federal Superfund list of hazardous waste sites around the country.
The problems in births peaked from 1971 to 1975, when the release of hazardous solvents and heavy metals from the site was highest, said Michael Berry, a co-author of the study and an epidemiologist for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
The study, done by sifting data from more than 9,000 birth certificates, meshes with previous research indicating limited but significant health effects around the former landfill.
The birth weight reduction of about 4 ounces from households closest to the dump was about the same as in mothers who smoke during pregnancy, according to the study, which is being published in the latest issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a monthly journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a federal agency in Atlanta. Articles appear in the journal only after being reviewed by a panel of independent scientists.
In laboratory animals, exposure to toxic chemicals has resulted in similar abnormal birth patterns, Berry said. Gloucester County provided a rare chance for scientists to document those patterns in humans.
The strength of the link between the past environmental problems in the community and the condition of newborn babies is evident in two ways, Berry said. Not only did the early births and reduction in birth weights tend to occur most in households that were closest to the landfill, but they also occurred almost exclusively from 1971 to 1975, when the release of toxic fumes and runoff was highest.
In fact, he added, once the landfill cleanup began in earnest, birth weights in the neighborhoods closest to the dump rebounded until they were higher than those in areas away from the landfill.
Findings 'quite significant'
"The circumstantial link is hard to ignore and blame on something else," Berry said. "These findings are quite significant given the fact that low birth weight and preterm babies have a lower chance of survival and a greater risk of developing post-birth problems than those born within the normal range," he added.
In the towns around the former dump, news of the study prompted both relief and anxiety, local officials and residents say. The relief came from the evidence that the birth problems had not persisted, said Douglas Stewart, a longtime councilman and high school teacher from Pitman, which is downwind of the toxic site.
"We always wanted to find out - as anybody does who lives near a toxic situation - what impact does it have on my family," said Stewart, who said he can "throw a stone from my porch into the lake" nearby. Now, he added, "Some answers are coming."
The anxiety comes from not knowing whether any longer-term medical problems like cancer can be linked to the landfill, he and other residents said.
A separate analysis seeking long-term health effects in affected families is under way, financed by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which also paid for the study of birth statistics.
From the 1960s until 1971, almost 3 million gallons of hazardous liquids and 12,000 tons of solid industrial wastes were dumped in a gravel pit tucked near four communities, a popular lake and several parks.
Pub Date: 9/18/97