Backyard Talk

SAN Trimer: The hidden killer behind the Reich Farm Superfund Site

Styrene-acrylonitrile trimer. It sounds like some sort of noxious mega-rocket fuel that Wile E. Coyote used to power his Acme rockets as he tried to take the Roadrunner down. Turns out styrene-acrylonitrile trimer, or SAN trimer for short, is not so far from being just that as the residents of Toms River, NJ painfully and tragically found out.

SAN trimer is a compound set of similar semi-volatile chemicals that are formed during the production of acrylonitrile styrene plastics. This compound is relatively new to modern toxicology, having been studied in depth only within the past decade and a half. As a result, its toxicological properties remain poorly understood – and the residents of Toms River and its surrounding areas paid the price for our lack of understanding and, most importantly, our carelessness.

In 1971 a waste hauler working for Union Carbide improperly disposed of drums containing toxic solvents on a section of the three-acre Reich Farm property in Toms River leading to massive soil and groundwater contamination with volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). Consequently, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and USEPA worked to address the site’s contamination, introducing it into the National Priorities List in 1983, developing a cleanup plan in 1988 and culminating the soil portion in 1995 (groundwater treatment was ongoing).

However, the SAN trimer lay hidden in the groundwater undisturbed by the treatment system – silently eating away at the health of the local residents. In 1996, significantly elevated rates of certain childhood cancers were found in the Toms River area. A staggering total of 90 cases of childhood cancer were reported from 1979-1995. New Jersey authorities were baffled by this and frantically looked for possible causes. Finally, with the help of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, they found a possible culprit as high concentrations of the SAN trimer in groundwater surrounding the Reich Farm Superfund Site were detected. Despite having practically zero understanding of the toxicity of SAN trimer, this find led to an update in the groundwater treatment system designed to remove the SAN trimer. Simultaneously, the National Toxicology Program was asked to conduct studies on the SAN Trimer to determine its health effects, and they completed their review in 2012.

The results concluded that the SAN trimer has potential to cause peripheral nerve degeneration, bone marrow hyperplasia and urinary bladder hyperplasia, while also concluding that it has no carcinogenic effects. However, the study consisted of 7 week, 18 week, and 2 year reviews of rats exposed to the SAN trimer as well as bacterial assays. These studies were quite limited and simply underscore our incomplete knowledge of SAN trimer toxicity. Furthermore, although not statistically significant, dose-related increases in DNA damage in brain and liver cells of test rats were observed pointing the way towards a possible association with cancer.

What is clear is that the SAN trimer is one of many new chemicals whose toxicity we simply do not understand. The reality is that it was present for nearly 20 years at the Reich Farm Superfund Site, and it ate up the lives of the children living there. Now, over 35 years since the site became contaminated, EPA held a public meeting in Toms River last Friday to explain how the SAN trimer is not responsible for the cancer cluster that devoured so many lives. And what are they basing this assessment on? On the lie they tell themselves and the rest of the public – that we understand how the SAN trimer works on our bodies, and that this hidden killer is not responsible for ruining 90 lives.

Backyard Talk

President Obama Holds the Power to Protect America from Keystone

In the first week of 2015, President Obama sent a clear message to the new Republican congress that he intends to stand firm in his commitment to uphold the health of environment and the American public. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on January 6 in a public statement that president Obama would veto any effort to move forward with the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Now, after the Keystone Act was passed in the House and is scheduled for a vote in the Senate, we hope that the President will stand firm by his promise.

This Keystone XL Pipeline Act is an effort that pushes for the completion of a pipeline that would transport oil tar sands from the Canadian province of Alberta, through Montana and South Dakota, and into Nebraska. Republican leads have been pushing for the Keystone pipeline since 2008, with a virtually identical bill failing to make it through the Senate as recently as last November. However, with the newly shaped senate in place and an already approved vote of 266-153 in the House of Representatives, the President faces a tough task in keeping the pipeline from harming the health of millions of Americans.

The concerns surrounding the Keystone pipeline are staggering. Firstly, the type of oil being mined and moved, oil sand tar, produces as much as 22% more carbon emissions than other fuels according to a Stanford University study commissioned by the EU in 2011. Secondly, the potential for a spill is highly likely, as is evidenced by the previous A tar sand spill in Mayflower AR, and could contaminate drinking water and agricultural land with toxic chemicals as the Environmental Working Group’s Poisons in the Pipeline investigation revealed.

Now that the Keystone Act is in the Senate floor and multiple amendments that would mitigate the pipeline’s destructive effects are being shot down by the Republican majority, the President’s resolution will be tested to its fullest. Although the Act has every chance of making it through the Senate, the president still hold the ultimate say. His veto power may be the only thing that stands to protect the American public from the unthinkable harms that the Keystone Pipeline would bring.

Backyard Talk

Citizen Science: Tracking The Air We Breathe

Smartphone apps and portable gadgets have made it possible for individuals to get up-to-the-minute information on their own vital signs and activity levels. What if we could just as easily monitor environmental impacts on our health, tracking real-time data on pollution exposures? Development of portable sensing devices is making this individualized approach to air quality monitoring a possibility for people worldwide, and is fueling citizen science initiatives to more comprehensively track pollution on a global scale.

The Air Quality Egg, the Smart Citizen Kit, and the DustDuino are just a few examples of this new type of gadget, which can measure levels of particulate matter and other pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. Nature has dubbed these devices “Sensors for the People.”  Data from these devices may be able to fill in the gaps left by official monitoring networks, whose sensors are, according to Nature, “sophisticated but sparsely distributed.”

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Graphic from

While data from official monitoring networks is important from a regulatory standpoint, it holds little relevance for individuals’ health. In fact, fixed sensors are generally inadequate for predicting environmental exposures, because people pass through so many different microenvironments throughout their days. A study at Columbia University fitted students with portable sensors and found that the majority of their exposure to airborne metals came from riding on the subway, rather than from breathing the air in their homes. Data from portable sensors can provide more pertinent information on individual exposures in the home, in transit, and in the workplace than the values obtained at the nearest monitoring station.

According to Nature, these approaches are “part of an effort to democratize air-quality monitoring so that it no longer remains solely in the domain of governments and academic researchers.” This may be a powerful shift in monitoring, particularly for areas facing both air pollution and a lack of readily-available data . Wired recently reported on David Lu, a UC Berkeley student from Shanghai who has collaborated with other students to develop a sensor and launch a startup for monitoring air quality in China, where reports have surfaced that some governments are blocking pollution data from being publicly available.

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Clarity Sensor (Image from Wired)

These portable sensors allow people to collect air quality data on their own personal environments, but data can also be aggregated to create more accurate pollution maps. That is the next phase of Lu and his fellow students’ project; essentially, they will be crowdsourcing data from China and other highly polluted areas to make air pollution mapping easier.

While research is taking off at some institutions and public enthusiasm is growing, the atmospheric science community has had a more tempered response to these devices. “Monitoring air-pollution levels is far more involved than the manufacturers and suppliers of cheap sensors suggest,” Ben Barratt, a British Air Quality Scientist said to Nature, citing differences in temperature and humidity as some of the complicating factors that make it difficult to cross-compare results between devices. Part of the reason why there are few official monitoring sites is because they take a lot of maintenance and care to ensure the data is accurate.

Though the data generated from these sensors does not currently hold up under sufficient scientific scrutiny for use in a regulatory context, citizen sensing projects are still in their early stages, and future technical developments may give crowdsourced pollution readings more clout. In the meantime, citizen scientists are developing the frameworks necessary for widespread monitoring of one of the biggest environmental health threats of our time.