The Wellesley Townsman - March 6, 2021

Wellesley’s past could affect future health of you and your family
by Sara Frost Azzam and Sarah Little

The Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project was founded in 1997, after the Department of Public Health confirmed the suspicions of several Wellesley residents that cancer rates were elevated in Wellesley. Upon the request of these citizens, the DPH released a study that showed that Wellesley had statistically significantly elevated cancer rates in breast and prostate cancers and multiple myeloma, as well as elevated rates of leukemia. This article is another in a series designed to educate the Wellesley townspeople regarding possible health risks in their lifestyles and in their community.

Haveyou ever thought about who lived in your house before you did? Have you ever been digging in your garden when you found an old bottle and wondered how it got there? The dirt in some Wellesley backyards is full of pieces of glass that come to the surface every spring. We wonder who put them there and who thought it was a reasonable practice to use dirty fill in the soil around a residential house. Then we wonder what our yards looked like 100 years ago, before the houses were built and when the landscape looked considerably different than today.

The history of land use in Wellesley is an interesting one, which has the potential to affect each of us. For example, examine the dilemma of the Paint Shop Pond. Henry Wood’s Paint Factory set up shop in 1848 on a small, out-of-the-way stream flowing between Morse’s Pond and Waban Pond. They created a successful business that, for 80 years, used the stream and grounds for storing and disposing of the excess raw and spent materials necessary for paint manufacture. As was typical for that time, they did not contain their wastes, and they unwittingly contaminated the stream, the ponds, and the soil with highly toxic lead, arsenic and chromium. Today, that historic land use practice is costing Wellesley College $30 million in clean-up costs in order to protect the public from the short and long-term effects of the carcinogens and toxic chemicals.

We became interested in historic land use in Wellesley for this very reason. If a paint factory was situated in Wellesley, could other industries have existed here as well? Was Wellesley always a pristine suburb? Or could other industries, as unwittingly as the Wood family who owned the now much-maligned paint factory, have caused problems that may still exist in our backyard? Toxins and carcinogens used and released into our land, air, and water 100 years ago can still impact our health today. You may be surprised at what industries have made Wellesley their home in the past. According to records at the Wellesley Historical Society, Diehls’ current location used to be a coal factory. Ledyard Street is called that because of the lead brought in for the Wood’s Paint Factory, which was located there until it moved to the Lake Waban area in 1848. Morse’s Pond was the site of dumping grounds for the town before the present Recycling Facility opened in the 1960s. Commercial laundry was done in Lake Waban around the turn of the century. The present Weston Road was previously known as " Blossom Street " with a number of commercial greenhouses located along that stretch. (It was not a main thoroughfare for the town back then.) Additionally, in the early 1900s, Blossom Street was the site of the town’s sewage disposal because of the " superiority of its location, soil, etc. " and its ability to drain better than other locations. The entire Lower Falls area, because of its proximity to the Charles River, was the site of numerous factories and mills, even through the World War II era. And we have recently learned about issues with the Sprague School site, which was a landfill for municipal refuse in the 1940s and 1950s.

None of these locations (with the exception of the Paint Shop Pond) has had a known health impact on the community today. However, what they all have in common is that these industries used materials now known to have carcinogenic properties. Should further studies be conducted? Possibly….

Each one of us needs to understand that the decisions we make and the products we use affect our health and the environment not only today, but for generations to come.

It takes time to determine which chemicals are carcinogens, and our culture is full of examples of materials which, for years, were thought to be safe, but were ultimately found to cause cancer: for example, tobacco, asbestos, lead and arsenic. Many of our nation’s founding fathers were tobacco growers, never dreaming that one day this crop would ravage the lives of their children’s children. With this in mind, think about all the new plastics, pesticides and other chemicals manufactured and being released into our environment every day. Are they safe? Our current regulatory process says that a chemical is safe until proven otherwise. However, we recommend that you carefully read the labels of the pesticides that you put on your lawns, the cosmetics you use on your faces, bodies, and nails, and the cleaning products that you use in your household. Decide whether or not you really want to surround yourself with products that read " Caution, " " Warning " or " Hazardous to Humans, " or that don’t list their ingredients at all.

Since our grassroots effort began, the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project has sponsored the " In Our Own Backyard " series of town-wide forums on cancer and environmental links. The focus of these forums is to educate the people in the community about the seemingly harmless products we use and the impact on our health and the environment.

Please come to hear a panel of distinguished experts speak at our upcoming forum " In Our Own Backyard: Cancer and the Environment, Where Are We Now? " on Thursday, March 14, at 7:30pm in the Wellesley Middle School. Join us for this informative discussion about how these issues relate to you as a member of the Wellesley community. You will learn what you can do to make this world a safer one for yourself and for your children.

Sara Frost Azzam and Sarah Little are board members of the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project.