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Publication Date: Friday, November 22, 2002



Residents near old semiconductor plant worry about toxic exposure Residents near old semiconductor plant worry about toxic exposure (November 22, 2002)

By Faiza Hasan

When three of Lori Hand's neighbors became sick with Parkinson's disease, she thought that it was a strange coincidence. But when she discovered that two more people on her block had Parkinson's, she started to get worried.

"I thought it was curious that everyone in the neighborhood was becoming sick with Parkinson's," she said. Hand has lived on Walker Drive on Whisman Road, opposite the old Fairchild Semiconductor plant, for 25 years. Her neighbors had been there longer, since the 1950s, before the plant was built.

Hand had read newspaper articles about chemical contamination and cleanup around the Fairchild plant, and was concerned that it might be behind the apparent cluster of illnesses.

Scientists say that no single chemical is known to cause Parkinson's -- a degenerative brain disease -- and that Mountain View residents don't seem to be at imminent risk of illness. But recent research indicates that Hand might have cause for worry, since studies show that TCE -- a toxic solvent released by the Fairchild plant -- might, over decades of exposure, contribute to a higher risk of Parkinson's disease (see sidebar).

Hand and her neighbors have not talked to a doctor or health expert about the cluster, but she says that she thinks about it all the time. "Two of the people who had Parkinson's in my neighborhood have passed away, the other three are in their seventies," she said. "All of them have lived here for about 45 to 50 years on the same street."

Art Sias, who lives next door to Hand, was diagnosed with Parkinson's about two and a half years ago. His wife had died of the disease in 1999. Like Hand, Sias is worried about the number of people with Parkinson's on his street. "It is hard to understand why, it's a strange thing," he said.

"Everyone seems to think that there is something strange about this, everyone is concerned, especially the people who have Parkinson's," said Hand.

Of the two other people with Parkinson's, both living on Walker Drive, one is in her early seventies and was diagnosed with Parkinson's when she was 65. The other is an 84-year-old man, who also mentioned another man down street with the disease. This brings the total number of people with Parkinson's on or around Walker Drive to six.

Dr. William Langston, head of the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, believes that these clusters are important leads, and that while two people in close proximity with Parkinson's is a coincidence, three or more becomes a cluster that needs to be looked at. "If it appears to be more than by chance then it is worthwhile to do the investigation," he said.

In addition to the Parkinson's sufferers, there also seems to be a high incidence of brain tumors within that area.

Kami Martin, a longtime resident who lives a block away from Walker, discovered that she had meningioma (a form of brain tumor) in 1999. She says that she knows of three other people, all within a block of her, who also had brain tumors. The only other tumor sufferer still living in the area was unwilling to be interviewed.

"First there was the old couple down the street, the husband had a tumor, and then I found that a man across my street also had four tumors removed," said Martin. "I had also heard from neighbors about a young couple who had moved away; one had a brain tumor. That was four people, so I told my neurologist that I was wondering if the Superfund area or water contaminated from Fairchild (might be the cause). He said, 'I don't know, could be.'"

Martin was referring to the chemical contamination in the area caused by computer chip companies in the Middlefield- Ellis- Whisman Superfund site. This area, which was once orchards and farms, was converted in the 1940s and 1950s into residential and business plots. As the computer industry grew, computer chip manufacturing companies moved into the neighborhood.

Up until the early 1980s, these companies leached TCE into the city's groundwater from leaky tanks. Used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts, TCE can stay in the soil and pass into the groundwater.

When the TCE contamination was discovered, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the federal Superfund law, required that the computer companies pay for a cleanup in which contaminated water is pumped from the ground, filtered, and pumped back.

Of the people with Parkinson's and brain tumors, Martin is the only one who worked at Fairchild (from 1962 to 1963) and came in contact with TCE. "It was used to remove markings off transistors and we were breathing it," she said.

Although TCE has been directly linked to brain tumors, Jean Rosner, director of education at the Parkinson's Foundation, said that she had not heard of one single component or toxic causing Parkinson's. "If a link is discovered it will not be the cause, it will be one factor. There is no single component that can be the cause," she explained.

EPA officials say that little of the TCE spilled at the Fairchild site made it across Whisman Road and into the residential area where the Parkinson's patients live. But there has been no testing of the air inside residents' homes to determine whether they are breathing unhealthy amounts of the chemical. There are currently no plans to conduct such tests in the area.

But Hand insists that the situation is unusual enough to investigate. "I think it is important to look a bit more at the illness in this area," she said. She has not contacted the EPA or any other organization, but intends to do so now.

Rick Kreutzer of the Santa Clara County Department of Health Services said the Parkinson's question has not come to his notice yet, but that the department would look into it if it becomes an issue. TCE and Parkinson's "is something that we do not know a whole lot on. We don't know about the relationship; there may be studies that show potential but there is nothing conclusive."

Alana Lee of the EPA agreed. "We haven't had any request as yet. I would need more information as far as what their concerns are. We would be interested in the information," she said.
E-mail Faiza Hasan at [email protected]


 

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