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.