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Health study may be next step for Watertown residents concerned about pollution on north side

Joanna Richards

Residents of Watertown's north side community have expressed renewed concerns over pollution surrounding the New York Air Brake industrial site, which was cleaned up beginning in the 1990s. Officials from the state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation held a public meeting Tuesday night at a nearby elementary school to try to respond to those fears.

Some residents of the neighborhood say they see a pattern of rare illnesses, like cancer and birth defects, and they want answers about whether New York Air Brake or another industrial site may have caused those problems.

The most heart-rending question of the night came from Carol Molinari. DEC spokesman Stephen Litwhiler read it to the crowd. 

"This is an emotionally-charged, health-related...Back years ago, there were deformed animals, and we fixed the environment. The person has deformed kids; and who is responsible for fixing them?" 

Molinari lives in Ogdensburg now, but she made Watertown her home for 35 years, and she had her children here. Two of her children suffer from a rare birth defect called craniosynostosis, which affects skull and brain growth.

"The chances of having two in one family were one in 850,000," she said. "And we have been genetically tested, and we don't have any of the known genes that cause cranio. It just makes me wonder if it's environmental."

And Molinari says her kids aren't the only ones affected by that birth defect. She says six children who live or lived in the north side neighborhood were born with craniosynostosis.

"I know that if you have one birth defect in the family, okay, it might just be an unusual thing. I have two, and we have six kids affected. That's a pattern. It might not be from this. I don't know. But I would be foolish not to look into it," she said.

Molinari says she will submit a formal request to the state Department of Health to study disease patterns in the area. 

But she might not get all the answers she's looking for. Health officials at the meeting said a study could show whether disease patterns in the area are unusual, but they wouldn't be able to establish a cause, even if an elevated incidence of illness is found.

James Bowers is a research scientist with the Department of Health.

"Given the number of factors that come into play with respect to risk for cancer, for different birth defects, we just don't have the information necessary to make a cause-and-effect determination," he said.

Still, a health study could help validate or dispel residents' fears that something in their neighborhood has been making people sick.

During the meeting, other residents told officials that a community garden in the late '80s and early '90s was stopped because of sludge coming up out of the ground.

Another resident told of a neighbor who worked for Air Brake and once brought home drums full of trichloroethylene, a chemical solvent used to clean machinery.

Environmental officials said these were two important new pieces of information that they'd look into.