The toxins we live with

Published March 23, 2023

By Lib Campbell

The list of toxic accidents in the United States is long. I use the term accidents loosely, because some of the toxicity that has poisoned land and river is a consequence of bad decisions, disregard for the safety of people and animals, and a general carelessness of creation. 
The most recent incident is the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The pictures show train cars piled up like Lincoln logs. A large plume of toxic smoke filled the air as Norfolk Southern burned off dangerous chemicals before they could explode. The iridescent film of oily residue filled the stream that runs through town. Soon the fish were belly up. 
Now a lawsuit against the Railroad is filed. This is far from the first incident that toxic residues have contaminated landscapes and rivers. Fifteen years after the incident, cancer and other diseases evidence themselves. Negative health impacts don’t happen immediately; they happen over time.
At a convention of United Methodist Women, a mother turned advocate told the story of Love Canal in Niagara Falls. This disaster began as a city landfill. When Hooker Chemical Company bought the property, they began burying drums of chemicals like Benzene underground, which over time leached into the soil and ground water supply. Nineteen thousand tons of toxic chemicals were buried for years. In 1976, when the health issues started, Lois Gibbs and other women became the mouthpiece advocating for cleanup, restitution, and accountability. The legal battle over Love Canal is still ongoing. 
In Warren County, North Carolina, a poor county mostly populated by people of color, Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCBs) were deliberately dumped along the roadside for 240 miles. When the cleanup for this disaster was completed in 2004, the cost was over $25 million dollars. Living in the Northeast at the time, I remember warning signs alongside the road. It was surreal to think anybody could be so thoughtless and greedy as to poison the very soil on which little children walk and farmer’s till. 
Then there is Duke Energy’s toxic waste pond which failed, dumping coal ash into the Dan River. The 2014 spill filled the river, where we had gone tubing, with unburned carbon, mercury, lead and various other chemicals. Cleanup has reached over $3 million dollars and continues to rise. 
Other contamination happened at Camp Lejeune over a 35-year period from 1952 to 1987. Oil, industrial wastewater, chemicals like degreasers and solvents were dumped into the city storm drains, headed straight into groundwater and drinking wells. Enough people have been made sick in this catastrophe that a class action lawsuit has been filed, and lawyers are on television and radio inviting anyone who drank Camp Lejeune water to come on in for a piece of this pie. 
Years ago, when Dupont Chemical came to Kinston, their slogan was, “Better living through chemistry.” It was plastered everywhere. Residents along the Cape Fear River from Fayetteville to Wilmington tell a different story. Chemours, a spin-off of Dupont, was created to be the face of the PFOA and PFAS debacle, bearing the liability from the discharge into the river of carcinogens from making Teflon and non-stick cookware. Even though an agreement was made in 2015 to phase out these “forever” chemicals, they continue to be dumped into the Cape Fear and will continue to contaminate soil and water until they are remediated. So much for better living through chemistry.
Most of us have heard of Erin Brockovich. She is a paralegal, whistleblower, consumer advocate and environmental activist who filed the case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company in Hinkley California. Her work has raised awareness of the problems we have with toxic waste, and the poor solutions we have sought to deal with it. She was in East Palestine shortly after the disaster happened. When Erin Brockovich is on the case, beware. Somebody is going to get a lot of bad press as their feet are held to the fire. 
Some of these actions evidence negligence. Some appear to be deliberate. While the “why” such toxic incidents happen is important, accountability in every case is necessary. Innocent people do not need to bear the long-term consequences, health or otherwise, of bad business practices on the part of large profit-driven corporations. The little guys of East Palestine don’t need to hold the short stick of this problem. Neither do North Carolinians who live along the Cape Fear.
We live in a world with many double-edged swords. And we live with the constant push and pull of regulations versus freedoms. Until care of creation, planning for protection of natural resources, and caring about what we are leaving for future generations are reckoned with, this problem will continue to plague us. Until we are as concerned with good stewardship as we are profits, we will continue to write stories of pain, illness, suffering, and loss. The stressors that cloud our choices in how we live with the natural world are real. So are the toxins we live… and die with. 
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader, columnist and host of the blogsite She can be contacted at