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Mother: state Health Department should study birth defects near Air Brake site

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An Ogdensburg mother who grew up near New York Air Brake intends to make a formal request for the Department of Health to conduct a study on birth defects possibly associated with pollutants dumped years ago at the Starbuck Avenue plant.

Carol J. Molinari, whose two sons suffered from a rare brain illness, said Wednesday night she will send an email as early as today to James A. Bowers, a Health Department research scientist, to ask the department to investigate birth defects of children near the former Air Brake site, where toxic chemicals ended up in Kelsey Creek and other nearby tributaries.

The study could show whether a pattern exists with her two sons and other children who suffered from birth defects on the north side of the city.

“I know there is a pattern,” she said. “I have seen the pattern. I’ve lived it.”

Mrs. Molinari was one of about 80 people who attended a public informational session with state Department of Environmental Conservation and Health Department officials to learn what the two agencies will do about residents’ health and environmental concerns.

After the meeting at North Elementary School, Mr. Bowers said he would take Mrs. Molinari’s request to an internal Health Department committee in Albany to determine whether a study is warranted. He also plans to expand the study request to look at cancer and low birth rates in that section of the city that have occurred over the years.

The study would look at such things as whether the children had exposure to the site and to any chemicals from it. If approved, it would take between 18 and 24 months to complete, he said. The findings then would be released to the public and included with about 10,000 documents already collected over the years about the New York Air Brake situation.

The various chemicals and metals once used at the site could cause cancer, birth defects and other illnesses, Mr. Bowers said. Exposure to such chemicals could also be more harmful to fetuses, children and the elderly.

During the two-hour meeting, Health Department and DEC officials repeated several times that they found the chemicals only on-site and possibly underneath an East Hoard Street home when the most recent environmental investigation was completed in 2008.

Since then, they’ve been monitoring the site. They insisted several times they found no exposure that would be harmful to residents.

Mrs. Molinari’s two sons, Vincent J. and Dominic J. — now 17 and 13 years old — suffered from problems with their skull bones that would not allow normal growth of their brains. It was caused by “soft spots” that closed too fast after they were born, she explained.

Both boys had surgery to correct the problems, with the older child having craniofacial and plastic surgery when he was six months old, at age three and when he was eight. Dominic had similar surgery when he was five months old and at age five.

They have mostly recovered, but Mrs. Molinari strongly suspects that there is a link to toxic chemicals dumped at the former Air Brake site and found in Kelsey and Oily Creek years ago. Not only did her two sons suffer from the cranial problems, but she knows of four other children within a half-mile area of the site that have similar birth defects, she said.

Two of those children were born to friends growing up in the neighborhood who attended the meeting.

Tammy L. Gallaher, who grew up on Davidson Street and now lives on nearby Cooper Street, and John R. Parks, who lived a block from the Starbuck site and now lives in Clay, wanted to find out more about how the pollutants may have affected their children.

Mr. Parks’s daughter, Madison, now eight, and Mrs. Gallaher’s son, Nicholas, 13, also suffered from the cranial problems at birth. Madison had four surgeries with a specialist at Children’s Hospital in Boston, while Nicholas had experimental surgery in Missouri.

After years of not seeing each other, they introduced each other in the hallway and began sharing their stories. Years ago, the two parents had genetic testing done that determined the birth defects had nothing to do with their families, they said.

Mrs. Gallaher said that the birth defect is found in fewer than one percent of all children.

“For six kids in the same neighborhood, that’s astronomical,” she said.

While Mrs. Gallaher’s and Mrs. Molinari’s two sons can be included in the proposed Health Department study, Mr. Parks’s daughter cannot. She was born in Syracuse, he said.

“I just can’t believe it,” he said. “I don’t understand.”

The departments will use the information gathered to re-evaluate whether there should be more testing, said Peter R. Taylor, a DEC hazardous waste remediation engineer. He also told the crowd that DEC plans to conduct a 10-year review on the site and neighborhood.

Residents have expressed concerns about levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, found in the neighborhood over the years. TCE and PCBs are carcinogens, while TCE also can cause nerve disorders.

In 2008, DEC found unacceptable levels of TCE, an industrial solvent used at the Air Brake plant decades ago, in four on-site buildings and a home at 431 E. Hoard St., which subsequently was equipped with an air-mitigation system.

DOH and DEC tested more than 50 structures for TCE vapor intrusions. The site includes three landfills, a series of Air Brake buildings and several structures now occupied by the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency. New York Air Brake manufactures braking systems for railroad cars.

In 1995, DEC dredged Kelsey Creek and removed contaminants and soil.

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