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By Olivia LaVecchia
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By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The gloves came in all sizes. There were white nylon gloves and wrist-to-elbow gauntlets and men's cotton work gloves.
For ten years, from 1962 to 1972, a young mother named Patricia Smith would make weekly trips to the warehouse of the Motorola Semiconductor plant on 52nd Street and McDowell in Phoenix, where she would pick up cartons of dirty gloves that had been used by workers in the electronics plant.
With the help of her three little children and her husband, John, Patricia would cart the gloves to a nearby laundromat. The children would help sort the dirty gloves and load them into the machines. They would help pull the gloves from the dryers and stuff them into the cartons.
Then the mother, father and three children returned the clean gloves to Motorola.
The family might wash as many as 10,000 pairs of gloves weekly. For each pair, the electronics company paid Patricia up to 6 cents. Patricia was grateful for the work--the income enabled her to stay home and take care of her children. Today, their family home on 41st Street and McDowell sits next to the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund site. A plume of groundwater contaminated with the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, originates at the Motorola plant and stretches for miles to the west and southwest. TCE readings in the groundwater beneath the plant are among the highest ever recorded in the United States.
Widespread use of TCE was phased out by Motorola, an $11 billion worldwide electronics giant that has long been Arizona's largest employer, in the late 1970s after scientists began worrying about its health effects. Today, the federal government classifies TCE as a "probable carcinogen." What's more, solvents like TCE have been linked to leukemia, a cancer of the blood, and lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. TCE has also been associated with other health problems, including disorders of the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
But back when Patricia and her family were washing gloves for Motorola, they had no worries about the chemicals emitted from the nearby plant. "We thought they were very benevolent," says Patricia. "They were, from what we had read in the newspapers, a clean industry coming into the area to provide jobs."
Now Patricia questions just how "clean" Motorola really was. She wonders if Motorola released chemicals into the air that may have hurt her children. She wonders if TCE and other chemicals leaked into a nearby canal where the children waded and fished for crawdads.
She wonders, most of all, what was on the gloves.
Today, Motorola doesn't know what was on the gloves.
There are reasons Patricia Smith wonders.
Ten years ago, Patricia and John's only son, David, then 29, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. When doctors investigated further, they discovered that David also suffered from an advanced stage of lymphoma.
David says his doctors didn't bother trying to figure out whether the lymphoma preceded the testicular cancer, or vice versa. At that point, it simply didn't matter. What mattered was saving his life.
David survived. But in ten years, his body has never been free of cancer.
Then the ordeal began all over again.
Two years ago, David's sister Bunny contracted lymphoma. She, too, was 29 years old at the time of her diagnosis.
Patricia asks herself one question over and over again. How could it be that two out of three children came down with lymphoma?
How could it possibly be?
State and federal public health officials have no answer for Patricia Smith. Although the Motorola TCE spill has been monitored by state officials for ten years, there has never been a thorough public health study of the people living near or working in the Motorola 52nd Street plant.
Instead, the state Department of Health Services has conducted a controversial "risk assessment" of the site, as well as a cursory statistical study. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)--the federal agency responsible for health studies at Superfund sites--also performed a health assessment that could find no past or present health risks at the site.
New Times has learned during an investigation that those studies have been called into question by scientists across the country. Among the problems:
ùThe ATSDR studies of Superfund sites have been criticized by a General Accounting Office panel of scientists for their scientific inadequacy.
ùThe federal Superfund law prohibits the ATSDR from assessing all exposures to chemicals by limiting the agency's studies to "unpermitted" or illegally released discharges of toxic substances.
ùBoth the state and federal governments based their studies, in part, on unchecked data provided by Motorola.
ùState health officials themselves concede that their statistics on cancer rates in the area are incomplete.
But without noting the documented limitations of all of the government studies, Motorola and state environmental officials cite them as scientific proof that no adverse health effects have been found.
Without adequate federal or state studies, affected citizens have suffered a breakdown of faith in their public health officials. Desperate for a complete accounting of health problems in their neighborhoods, these same citizens have resorted to their own amateur epidemiological studies.