Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town's Toxic Legacy

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On her deathbed, Sue asked her sister for one thing: to write about the connection between the industrial pollution in their hometown and the rare cancer that was killing her. Fulfilling that promise has been Nancy Nichols’ mission for more than a decade.

Lake Effect is the story of her investigation. It reaches back to their childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, an industrial town on Lake Michigan once known for good factory jobs and great fishing. Now Waukegan is famous for its Superfund sites: as one resident put it, asbestos to the north, PCBs to the south.
Drawing on her experience as a journalist, Nichols interviewed dozens of scientists, doctors, and environmentalists to determine if these pollutants could have played a role in her sister’s death. While researching Sue’s cancer, she discovered her own: a vicious though treatable form of pancreatic cancer. Doctors and even family urged her to forget causes and concentrate on cures, but Nichols knew that it was relentless questioning that had led to her diagnosis. And that it is questioning—by government as well as individuals—that could save other lives.
Lake Effect challenges us to ask why. It is the fulfillment of a sister’s promise. And it is a call to stop the pollution that is endangering the health of all our families.

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Editorial Reviews

People magazine
"A chilling indictment of how government and big business prized profits over health and a moving tale of one woman's struggle to understand why."
co-author of Our Stolen Future
"Powerful. Intense. Compelling. With spare, elegant prose. poignant yet scientifically accurate, Nancy Nichols weaves a personal story into a universal tragedy, about toxic waste, careless industry, and human suffering."

— Pete Myers

"...Eloquent indictment of decades of corporate carelessness, official inaction and American society's reflexive focus on searching for a cure instead of a cause."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Presents convincing proof that Waukegan and Lake Michigan are prime suspects in the sisters'' cancers."
People magazine
"A chilling indictment of how government and big business prized profits over health and a moving tale of one woman''s struggle to understand why."
Pittsburgh City Paper
"In Lake Effect, Nichols, now 49, weaves her investigations of Waukegan''s pollution and the causes of cancer with her own story of diagnosis and treatment. It''s a thoughtful examination of the risks faced by bodies made by nature in a world fabricated by technology."

"...Eloquent indictment of decades of corporate carelessness, official inaction and American society’s reflexive focus on searching for a cure instead of a cause."

biologist and author of Living Downstream - Sandra Steingraber

"I read this book like a desert hiker drinks water—in great, thankful gulps. It's a scientific investigation of the most intimate sort. It's a family memoir with public policy implications. 'Stories matter,' says Nancy Nichols. And then she proves it."
Director, Center for Environmental Oncology, University of Pittsburgh - Devra Davis

"A stunning, haunting, exquisite memoir. As a scientist, I'm dumbstruck. As a human being, I'm appalled."
author of Ordinary Life and Illness and the Limits of Expression - Kathlyn Conway

"In Lake Effect Nancy Nichols beautifully weaves together the story of her sister's death and her own ill health with the equally compelling story of her hometown of Waukegan on Lake Michigan's shores. Her quest to make sense of her family's devastating illnesses and the region's toxic chemicals is clear-eyed, eloquent, and revealing."
coauthor of Our Stolen Future - Pete Myers

"Powerful. Intense. Compelling. With spare, elegant prose… poignant yet scientifically accurate, Nancy Nichols weaves a personal story into a universal tragedy, about toxic waste, careless industry, and human suffering."
People Magazine

"A chilling indictment of how government and big business prized profits over health and a moving tale of one woman's struggle to understand why."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Presents convincing proof that Waukegan and Lake Michigan are prime suspects in the sisters' cancers."
Pittsburgh City Paper

"In Lake Effect, Nichols, now 49, weaves her investigations of Waukegan's pollution and the causes of cancer with her own story of diagnosis and treatment. It's a thoughtful examination of the risks faced by bodies made by nature in a world fabricated by technology."

"...Eloquent indictment of decades of corporate carelessness, official inaction and American society's reflexive focus on searching for a cure instead of a cause."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597260848
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 8/27/2008
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,019,191
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy A. Nichols is a journalist, editor, and broadcaster whose writing has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times Book Review, The Harvard Business Review, and The Nation, among other publications.

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Read an Excerpt

Lake Effect

Two Sisters and a Town's Toxic Legacy

By Nancy A. Nichols


Copyright © 2008 Nancy A. Nichols
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-821-9


The Used-Car Salesman's Daughters

IN THE AFTERMATH OF my mother's death when I was ten years old, my older sister became a kind of substitute Mom. To console me that first summer, we often went as a big sister/little sister dyad to the Lake Michigan shore.

The municipal beach in Waukegan was a small piece of land edged by factories and the town's water processing plant. If you were facing the lake when the sun rose, our town beach looked like a picture postcard; but at sunset the string of factories cast long shadows over the bandstand, the snack shop, and the playground. The factories did not deter us, however. Like so many townspeople, we simply turned our back on them and enjoyed the lake.

My sister had a small yellow bikini and ultrawhite skin. I was tanned brown and sticky from candy or ice cream or both. She was nineteen, drove a red Mustang, and had a beehive hairdo. She had perfect penmanship, scratched out with a thin blue fountain pen. Everything about me was messy or dirty or untamed in comparison.

Part sister, part mother, part friend, Sue handed me my first tampon, taught me how to shave my legs, and told me about sex—although I later used to tease her that I never quite had the earth-shaking, sheet-rattling experience that she summoned up in our less than scientific little chats. "How do you do that again?" I would ask, and she would blush and shove me away, saying, "Shut up."

We were the daughters of a used-car salesman who was notable mostly for having once sold more Dodge Darts than any other man in the state. At nearly six foot four, my father dressed the part of a car salesman as well as he played it. He was unmistakable in his lime green leisure suits with white belts. His slicked-back white hair was a perfect match for his black shirts with white ties and checkerboard sports jackets.

Our father lied about everything, consistently, reflexively. It was an occupational hazard. He lied about unimportant, useless things, like which grocery store he went to; and about enormous things too, like whether or not the car was insured or whether there was oil in the furnace. He lied about which branch of the service he had been in during World War II, as if that would matter to anyone. He lied about having gone to college, which he never did. I don't know whether he had always lied and that made him an excellent car salesman or whether he started lying once he started selling cars and then adopted it as a lifestyle.

No matter. Our father's unceasing lying caused us to crave the definitive. We were fact-crazed girls who grew into hard-bitten realists as women. My sister became a title searcher—someone who checks that the property you are about to buy is owned wholly by the seller with no outstanding liens. She made sure that all was in order, recording transaction after transaction on three-by-five-inch cards in the days before personal computers, carefully sorting and storing them in the closet. I worked as a reporter, hunting for little facts that taken together might prove some larger truth.

After we reached adulthood, she moved farther out into the county, just west of Waukegan, and I went off first to college and then to New York and Boston to pursue a career in magazines and television. Though from different vantage points, we both avidly followed the news from our hometown.

When I was in high school in the late 1970s, sporadic reports of contaminants near the beach and in the harbor had already begun to appear. After we left town, the slow trickle of stories became a torrent, eventually landing Waukegan on the front page of national newspapers and on the network news. As the story evolved, my sister and I traded newspaper clippings and studied reports that named the sources of the pollutants and identified the chemicals that had suffused our early years without our knowledge.

In long, late-night phone calls, news of the contaminants mixed with news of what my sister was wearing, what kind of curtains she should get for her bedroom, and what she was making for dinner. On trips back home in the late 1980s, we walked the borders of the restricted zones together, peering around fences emblazoned with skull and crossbones near childhood haunts. The farm where we bought our vegetables, restaurants we frequented, and the nursing home where my grandmother lived all ringed one site that was less than a mile from our home. As we toured the places of our childhood, the scope of the pollution seeped into our consciousness in the same way that it had slowly slipped into the groundwater.

I don't think it occurred to either of us in those years that we might personally be affected by what had been discoveredin the sediment, the groundwater, even in the lake itself. It didn't occur to us, that is, until 1992, when my sister was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer. She was only forty-one at the time, and there was only a minimal history of cancer in our family. We both began to wonder aloud whether there could be a link between the chemical contamination in our hometown and her cancer. And once the seed of that possibility was planted, our curiosity took root.

It was late the next year that my sister, weak and failing from chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant, whispered to me in the same secretive tone she had used to explain everything—sex, the death of our mother, and most recently in the tiniest voice imaginable, her cancer—"You have to write about this." I knew what she wanted. She wanted me to make meaning out of her agony, to make sure that all her suffering would amount to something in the end.

"I will," I assured her as I ran my hand over the thin hair on her head. I called her little ducky head because of the soft, downy hair that she grew between rounds of chemotherapy. "You're beautiful."

"Am not, and you shouldn't say it."

"Are too," I said as I stroked her arm. She gave a little half smile and went back to sleep.

If she had been feeling better, I would have argued, "No, don't be stupid. Get up. Write your own book." Instead, I murmured, "Don't worry, I can do it," as I tucked the covers under her chin. I made the promise the same way I might have told her she could borrow my sweater. I knew what she wanted, but I never expected I would have to deliver. I had hoped then—had even believed at some level—that she would get up and get better.

My sister was my biggest fan, and even in her chemoinduced haze she argued that I could write the kind of book she imagined. As a journalist working in print and television, I had covered some of the major environmental stories of the 1980s, stories that led to conversations that, in turn, would cause us to wonder about our hometown. In 1982, in Times Beach, Missouri, for example, investigators had discovered that oil tinged with a dangerous chemical called dioxin had been sprayed on the floors of horse stables and on dirt roads to manage dust. A river flood then washed dioxin-contaminated soil into homes. Eventually, the federal government bought out homeowners and businesses in a large-scale resettlement.

Waukegan would take its turn on the national stage two years later, in 1984, when a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, Rita Lavelle, was accused of secretly meeting with lakefront polluters in an effort to strike a cleanup deal that heavily favored industry. Lavelle was forced to resign when a congressional committee discovered her inappropriate backdoor negotiations and other transgressions.

In the aftermath of the scandal, the full extent of Waukegan's chemical contamination was revealed. By far the largest single source of pollution on the lakefront, and the first identified, was the one million pounds of sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) lining the town's harbor. These fire- and pressure-resistant substances were banned as possible cancer-causing chemicals in 1976, a year before I graduated from high school and the same year that lakefront pollution was first investigated by state and federal authorities.

Eventually, three separate Superfund sites, named after the 1980 federal legislation that allocated funds to clean them up, were designated in Waukegan. Two of the sites are adjacent to the lake. The other is a landfill—less than a mile from our childhood home—where many of the industrial pollutants from the manufacturing facilities on the lake were trucked. In addition, more than a dozen other sites form what federal and state regulators call an expanded study area, which stretches along the lakefront from one end of town to the other. These smaller sites contain the waste products from a tannery, a steel company, a paint factory, a pharmaceutical company, and a scrap yard. Together, these sites contain not just PCBs, but an alphabet soup of pollutants.

"Just about every chemical we know to be dangerous to human health is in one of those sites," says Margaret Quinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who specializes in human exposure assessment. In addition to PCBs, these chemicals include benzene and other volatile organic compounds, arsenic, lead, asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, vinyl chloride, and ammonia. Various chemicals among these have been associated with reproductive diseases, learning and attention deficits in children, birth defects, immune system deficiencies, and some forms of cancer.

Was there a relationship between my sister's cancer and the toxins of our childhood? My sister certainly thought so. And many other people have suspected, often correctly, that elements in their environment have had an effect on their health. Yet because of the long time it takes for a cancer to develop and because of the relative mobility of our lives today, it can be challenging to establish a causal link between a disease and its origin.

In my hometown, for example, the factories that lined the lake when I was a child are for the most part boarded up and bankrupt, some have been torn down and carted away, and only a few remain active. Much of Waukegan's present population is new to the area; the men who worked in those plants and their children have passed away or have scattered in search of better jobs and cleaner towns.

In order to fulfill my promise to my sister, then, I could not simply comb the town looking for other people who might be sick, piecing together patterns observed along the way. I would need to stitch my story together from a variety of sources. I made repeated visits to my hometown to find out what I could there, of course. But I also hired researchers to help me understand the technical literature, I read and reread studies of the effects of toxins, and I interviewed experts. I studied the chemicals in the lake and the processes that scientists believe lead to cancer. And I talked to the men I could locate who had managed the factories.

I spoke, for example, to the person who used to run the Johns-Manville plant that produced asbestos-laden building products on Waukegan's lakefront. Asbestos is a natural substance that when inhaled can cause a severe and deadly lung cancer called malignant mesothelioma. Every single member of his administrative staff had died, he told me. Workers' health claims from the Waukegan plant and elsewhere grew to hundreds of millions of dollars. In a controversial move, Johns-Manville filed for bankruptcy in 1982, seeking to protect the company from the growing stack of liability claims. The company was later reorganized, but the Waukegan plant closed permanently.

This story was repeated again and again in Waukegan and in similar communities around the Great Lakes and elsewhere. The industries along the lake fell like dominoes in the wake of environmental and health concerns, or theymoved away or were simply driven under by poor management and increasing foreign competition. Waukegan lost close to thirty-five thousand jobs in the three decades between the 1970s, when extensive pollution was officially documented, and 2001, when the final polluter on the lake-front went bankrupt.

With the resulting working-class diaspora and other population changes went any chance of a large-scale epidemiological study to document the effects of toxic exposure in Waukegan's residents and plant workers. Indeed, statistics for the town and surrounding area don't show any incidence of cancer or other diseases beyond what might be expected in the general population. But I know these statistics are misleading because they don't include the men who have already died from exposure to asbestos and the people who simply moved away when the jobs left.

Cancer is, of course, a complicated illness. In some instances, genetic heredity is an overwhelming factor. But there are many external factors that can lead to or influence the disease, such as toxins both man-made and natural in our food, water, and air. And then there is the body's sophisticated and distinct response to invasive toxins. The strength of a person's immune system, an individual's genetic makeup, and perhaps even a person's stress level can affect how, or if, disease develops. It is a complex dance between an individual and his or her environment that leads to disease. What evidence was there about the toxins in my town? What role might they play in serious human illnesses such as my sister's?

Although I set out to write an account of one person's illness, what I found was a universal story. Some of the toxic chemicals in my hometown are banned now, but they are still present in many places—and they are similar in both their structural composition and effect to many other chemicals that remain in use today, accumulating in our bodies and those of our loved ones. All of us have a lifetime of toxic exposures to contend with—from air, from water, from the food we eat. The amount of exposure, its timing, and the particular mix of the chemical cocktail we have each ingested are all relevant to our own health and the health of our children.

Studies show that many people today, even those living in remote areas of the world, carry an enormous body burden of chemical substances. Persistent chemicals similar to the type that we encountered in Waukegan can be found in the bloodstreams of those who live in urban industrialized areas and those who live in rural and remote lands. These toxins are present in the bodies of the Inuit people living on the rim of the Arctic and in the bodies of the wealthiest women living privileged lives in California. Elderly people carry caches of toxins in their bodies, and the youngest among us who ingest a mother's stored contaminants in breast milk can show the highest concentration of pollutants.

Studies by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found measurable levels of industrial chemicals in all adults tested in the United States. No longer is it necessary to spend your summer days lolling on the beach near a toxic-waste site as my sister and I did to end up with a hefty dose of industrial chemicals. In 2007, the American Cancer Society, for example, listed more than two hundred chemicals found commonly in urban air and everyday consumer products that are capable of producing breast cancer in animals. Where once we thought of pollution simply as existing outside of us—in the landfill, or in the lake, or in the lagoon behind the factory—today it's recognized that each and every one of us is a walking environment, and often a toxic one at that.

The feedback loops created by what we produce, how we produce it, and how and where we store the wastes created in the process can be found over and over again in our society. As we change the land and the landscape, it changes us. "As humans have industrialized the land, the land has, in turn, industrialized them," writes the environmental historian Linda Nash in Inescapable Ecologies. "Neither the realm of nature nor the realm of the human remains pure." Nowhere did this perverse relationship between ourselves, the industries we create, the environment we often neglect, and our health play out more clearly than in my hometown and in my family.


Green Town

RAY BRADBURY, THE NOTED science fiction writer and novelist, was born in Waukegan in 1920 and spent part of his childhood there. In his 1957 novel Dandelion Wine, he painted an idealized picture of the place, even naming it Green Town. By the time I was growing up there, however, the town was anything but green.

For Bradbury, Waukegan was a vibrant town with rain barrels and grape arbors and spent firecrackers lying on dew-kissed lawns. Verdant trees touched as they arched over the top of streets, bees with feet dusted by hundreds of blossoms buzzed happily, and boys rollicked in deep ravines. Bradbury's romanticized version of the town, however, belied its long commercial history. Nestled along Lake Michigan's shores almost precisely halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, Waukegan has been a site for commerce since a well-known Jesuit missionary, Jacques Marquette, arrived in 1673 and established a trading fort. Just over two hundred years later, in 1885, the bustling little town with a population of just over four thousand boasted several breweries, tanneries, and mills and a mattress factory.


Excerpted from Lake Effect by Nancy A. Nichols. Copyright © 2008 Nancy A. Nichols. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Used-Car Salesman's Daughters     1
Green Town     11
Coho Capital of the World     19
The False Center of the Collage     27
Lake Michigan Legacy     35
A Marked Woman     53
Miasma     63
Hitchhiking Hormones     73
Me Too     85
Destiny     99
Why Ask Why?     111
Proof     123
Epilogue     135
Acknowledgments     141
Notes     145
Selected Bibliography     163
Index     171
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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    Waukegan, IL - My Hometown

    Nancy Nichols has made a wonderful dent into the mystery of what went wrong in Waukegan. I grew up in Waukegan during the 50's and 60's. I loved the town and the lake. Many of my friends/relatives were jealous - beautiful lake, vital downtown, and, of course, "scooping". Things changed in the 70's. The wonderful "green town" that Ray Bradbury wrote about in "Dandelion Wine" was becoming an eyesore. After the industries began leaving and other were investigated, Waukegan was never the same. I would love to read more about the growth and decline of my wonderful hometown.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Compelling Memoir and Environmental History of Waukegan Harbor

    Nancy Nichols grew up in Waugekan, IL in the 1960s and 1970s, when several factories, including Johns-Manville (asbestos) and Outboard Marine (engine manufacturing, which involved metalworking fluids that included PCBs) were dumping waste directly into Waukegan Harbor. Waukegan is also home to the Yeoman Creek Landfill, which abutted a local farm where her family purchased vegetables. Nancy's sister Sue died of ovarian cancer and Nancy herself is a survivor of pancreatic cancer.

    This book, a combination of environmental history, epidemiology, and memoir, tells the story of Waukegan's industrial rise and fall and Nancy's search for answers following her sister's death and her own battle with cancer. Nichols does an excellent job of translating toxicology and environmental science into plain English. The book is compulsively readable and makes a compelling case for the linkage between her cancer and Waukegan's pollution.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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