Felix Wynn, like nearly all of Triana's residents, used to eat fish caught from the Tennessee River and Indian Creek, both a few minutes' walk along any of the town's half-dozen or so one-lane streets.
That was before this mostly black and low-income community found out that the cheap source of protein carries extremely high levels of DDT, though it has been a decade since Olin Corp. shut down its insecticide plant on the Army's nearby Redstone Arsenal.
As a result, Wynn, an 85-year-old retired farmer, has more DDT in his blood -- 3,300 parts per billion -- than ever was found in anyone, according to the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.
CDC found that the average DDT levell in the blood of Triana's residents is almost 10 times the 16.7 parts per billion found in the general population.
Now, CDC researchers say they also have found polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a group of once widely used industrial chemicals closely linked to cancer in animal studies, in 500 blood samples of Triana residents and families of area commercial fisherman.
Long-term risks to their health are unknown, says Dr. Kathleen Kreiss, the CDC physician heading the agency's Triana project. However, Kreiss warned at a communitywide meeting today that the PCB contamination could account for high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels among some of them.
These twin factors, she said, increase their risk of heart disease, strokes and kidney problems, although CDC has not tied any specific disease or illness in Triana to either chemical.
The agency says its findings here, including abnormal results in some liver function tests, justify additional study, especially because PCB levels averaging 22.5 parts per billion among Triana residents are in the range "probably found" in the general population.
Yet Kreiss says the population of the northern Alabama town is too small to present meaningful figures on any possible relationship between PCB exposure and cancer rates.
Mayor Clyde Foster reflects one commonly held belief of his townspeople when he says, "God didn't make this body to carry this burden" of chemicals.
Calabama Corp. started making DDT more than 30 years ago in a vacant Redstone Arsenal building leased from the Army Corp of Engineers. The plant was used in the manufacture of the poison gas lewisite during World War II, and started turning out the insecticide in 1948.
Olin Corp. bought out Calabama and continued to use the building to make perhaps as much as 25 million pounds of DDT annually, according to an Army study.
Water used to process the DDT ran out of the plant into an 800-yard-long ditch that drained into Huntsville Spring Branch, which empties into Indian Creek several miles upstream from Triana.
Time started running out for the plant in the early 1960s with the publication of the late Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," which blamed insecticides in the loss of wild life. By 1969 the Nixon administration had announced that it was planning to ban the use of DDT.
Army officials at Redstone started pressuring Olin in the late summer of 1969 to cut back on DDT discharges from the plant, according to Army spokesman David Harris. Less than a year later Olin announced that it was voluntarily giving up manufacture of the chemical at Redstone, shortly after it was sued by three environmental groups seeking to close the plant.
At the time, federal agencies had already found DDT in ducks on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, which extends onto the arsenal, and area hunters were warned about the contamination, Harris said.
State officials found DDT in goldfish, carp and gar after fish kills in the early 1970s in Huntsville Spring Branch. They told the Army they did not know if DDT was responsible, according to Harris.
A 1971 study done for the Alabama Department of Conservation found DDT and PCBs in low levels in fish samples taken at several sites along the Tennessee River in north Alabama.
"We tried to circulate a copy of the study to everyone," recalls Sam Spencer, chief of the department's fisheries section. "But nobody got excited about it then."
In 1977 the Army found DDT at almost 500 parts per million in a fish taken from Indian Creek at Triana. That is about 100 times the tolerance level set by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration.
The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army issued warnings widely publicized in this area in September 1977, but Mayor Foster says he did not hear about the problem until the Tennessee Valley Authority made a similar announcement more than a year later.
TVA officials also estimate that slightly more than 4,000 tons of DDT are on the bottom of Huntsville Spring Branch, and the Mobile District of the Corps of Engineers is almost through a $1.25 million study of how best to handle the contamination.
TVA and Corps officials say dredging the creek might cost $50 million and make matters worse by stirring up the DDT deposits.
About 50 area commercial fishermen claim they can no longer make a living out of the river because no one will buy fish heavily laced with DDT. lThey are suing Olin for $50 million.
That is small fry compared to the $1 million sought by each of 850 residents of the Triana area in another suit against the company. An Olin spokesman said the company has no comment on the suit.
Percy Grays, 60, has lived in Triana all his life and fished for his living until DDT put an end to that.
Grays' DDT level is 450 parts per billion. "It's something to worry about, and I've got grandchildren 1 to 9 years old. And it's something to worry about them."
Former commercial fisherman Donald Malone recalls when he occasionally made as much as $700 a week from the river.
"I was born and raised on the river," said Malone. "We made our living off it, and that's been taken away from every commercial fisherman.
"We drank river water for years and years and years. We didn't think nothing about it, but now look what kind of shape it's in."
Of the possibility of clearing the DDT from the river, he said:
"I don't believe they'll ever get it out of the Tennessee River. They'll probably never get it out of the fish."