Toxic Town

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Two Sisters and a Town's Toxic Legacy

By Nancy A. Nichols

Island Press. 178 pp. $24.95

Nancy Nichols made a deathbed promise to her sister that she would investigate the toxic history of their hometown, Waukegan, Ill., on the shore of Lake Michigan. A small town once known as the "Coho Capital of the World," Waukegan was a bucolic place for the girls to grow up, with happy summer days spent splashing in the lake. That was before the Environmental Protection Agency designated the town as the location of three separate Superfund sites. Beginning in the 1950s, the Outboard Marine Corporation, maker of Evinrude and Johnson boat motors, poured tons of hydraulic fluid containing PCBs into the lake. Other corporations, including the notorious Johns-Manville, which went bankrupt in the 1980s under the weight of liability claims, dumped asbestos and solvents onto fields and beaches where the children of Waukegan played.

When Nichols was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer -- eight years after her sister died of ovarian cancer -- the journalist began digging in earnest into the town's toxic legacy and the science of environmental hazards. Part memoir, part investigation, Lake Effect chronicles Nichols's attempts to link the polluted water and soil of Waukegan to her sister's death and her own disease, a difficult task even for a writer better equipped to sift through the arcana of epidemiological research. She makes links that aren't scientifically justified: for instance, between how pollutants known as endocrine disrupters affect wildlife and her own difficulty in having a second child at the age of 40. Despite acknowledging the impossibility of pinning "a particular person's cancer [on] a particular chemical," she then proceeds to spend much of the book trying to do precisely that.

Lake Effect is an engaging and generally well-told tale, though it does not succeed in forging a clear link between the author's disease and pollution. Even so, it is hard to believe that Nichols is not at least partly right, that the staggering amount of toxic goo dumped in Waukegan over the span of less than 50 years has surely had an impact on the health of its citizens.

-- Shannon Brownlee is the author of "Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer."

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