MY WAKE-UP CALL: I Had To Move 900 Miles Away to Understand that Niagara Falls Had a Problem … or Two.
February 20, 2015
Living in Niagara Falls, New York, means that you hear a lot about cancer. It’s a fact of life in this corner of New York State. Your grandparents or parents may have had it. More likely, your cousins, friends, or aunts and uncles were diagnosed with it. Maybe even you. All normal.
Or so I thought.
In my early twenties, I moved away from the Falls to attend law school and start my career as an attorney. I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and then Atlanta, Georgia. I developed a wide network of friends and colleagues in both cities, and I also stayed in touch with friends and family back home in Niagara Falls. (Mind you, this was before Facebook, so it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.) I tried to catch up with people whenever I visited home. Too often, those normal, everyday conversations included sad news about people I knew. I would hear about yet another person that had been diagnosed with cancer or some debilitating disease. Cousins, former teachers, family members, high school classmates.
Some of them were relatively young people.
So I guess shouldn’t have been that surprised when I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma at thirty-one. But I was. I was surprised … and scared. After all, I was a young mom with three small children at the time. I had no risk factors for this deadly disease—I didn’t smoke. I wasn’t a sun-worshipper (I mean, growing up in Western New York makes that pursuit sort of difficult anyway). I’m not fair-haired. And nobody in my family had ever had this particular type of cancer. Even more perplexing was the fact that my doctor’s assistant told me my cancer was not related to sun exposure. I received treatment and everything seemed okay.
Okay, that is, until the day my good friend Jennifer made an offhand comment that really got me to thinking. She said that I seemed to know an awful lot of people back home with cancer. Aside from me, she said, she hardly knew anyone battling this disease. Her comment hit home. I worked at a law firm with more than three hundred people, and I could count on one hand how many people were sick, let alone living with a cancer diagnosis. None of my Atlanta neighbors were sick. In fact, I couldn’t think of anyone in my circle of twenty- and thirty-something friends, colleagues, or acquaintances that had been diagnosed with any form of that ugly disease.
How had I not noticed that earlier?
I moved back to Niagara County a few years later. More and more, chance meetings with people I knew went something like this: “Did you hear about so-and-so with cancer?” Or, “I’ve been pretty sick for the last few years …” I’d grown up hearing those types of comments, but living out of state really showed me how not normal those discussions really are. Not everyone gets cancer.
What a surprise. I had a whole new perspective.
I started noticing that it wasn’t just cancer that I was hearing about. Lots of people, many my age, had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, or thyroid dysfunction, and sometimes several diseases at once. Then there were the so-called “rare” cases. You know, the diseases with unpronounceable names that very few people in the country get … but somehow multiple people in the area were dealing with them.
My friend’s words kept coming back to me. I shouldn’t know that many people with serious, debilitating illnesses. Something wasn’t right. I started reading reports by the various county, state, and federal agencies that are supposed to be in charge of protecting our health and natural resources. I learned a lot. For starters, health department statistics seemed to bear out the anecdotal evidence. Some of Niagara County’s cancer rates are higher than the state and national averages. See http://www.niagaracounty.com/Portals/4/Docs/NCCHA-CHIP2014-2017.pdf and http://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/chac/general/g2_29.htm Particular cancers are very high. For example, for brain and other nervous system cancers, the New York State rate is 8.3% for males and 5.7% for females. In Niagara County the rates are 11.1% and 7.6% respectively. http://www.niagaracounty.com/portals/4/docs/cha%20document.pdf
And I’m very curious about the rare cancers that aren’t tracked on a routine basis.
I even learned that my first childhood home sat three quarters of a mile from the intersection of Royal and 47th street in Niagara Falls, NY. An opinion columnist once described the area like this:
“Just in the seven years between 1965 and 1972, according to the Department of Energy, Union Carbide companies at Royal Avenue and 47th Street generated 505 tons of radioactive waste, carrying 9,212 pounds of uranium oxide, and 1,293 pounds of thorium oxide. All of that waste was buried—on site, nearby the Falls Street Tunnel and the intersecting NYSPA water intakes—in 55-gallon drums, piled in a ditch 20 feet deep and covered with four to five feet of soil.” (Artvoice, Odds & Ends Column, week of 4/30/09, accessed 1/25/15 at http://artvoice.com/issues/v5n21/notes_from_the_underground).
I realized that the City of Niagara Falls has suffered environmental defilement on a level that is truly astonishing. For some reason, Niagara Falls has had more than its fair share of corrupt politicians and unscrupulous industry owners. Those individuals elevated profit above the welfare of people. Our natural resources—especially the Niagara River and the waterways that feed it—continue to be degraded by leaking toxic landfills, abandoned chemical plants, and polluted sewer runoff. Contaminated parcels of land throughout Niagara Falls are the focus of constant hydraulic pumping and treatment operations. Its people are sick in numbers too high to ignore.
My friend was right.
It’s not normal for a population to be this sick. I get it now. My research led to the writing of Green City Savior, my environmentally themed suspense novel set in Niagara Falls. Ultimately, I became involved in handling a series of lawsuits stemming from the historic Love Canal disaster. And now it’s led to this blog.
Now that I’ve woken up to the reality of what’s happening, I want to be at the forefront in preventing, confronting, and responding to environmental degradation. I want to love and protect the things that God loves: people, creatures, and the land. And I want to help equip others who want to do those things, too. I hope you tune in or follow me – better yet, I hope you join me in shining a light on some very wrong things, both in Western New York and elsewhere.
Consider this your wake-up call, if you haven’t had one already.