Doing the right thing

When I was growing up in Ansonia in the 1960s, every now and then I would go down to Ted’s market, a neighborhood place on the corner of North State and 5th streets, and buy a box of candy cigarettes. For those of you too young to remember candy cigarettes were just that; cigarettes made of candy.

I’ll pause here and give the PC crowd time to pick themselves up off the floor.

Were candy cigarettes a stupid thing? Yes of course they were, but placed in the correct historical perspective…well actually, now that I think about it in mid-sentence….even in historical perspective candy cigarettes were stupid, but in those days, the full facts of the dangers of tobacco weren’t yet known and were popular with our parent’s generation who smoked and smoked a lot actually.

And cigarettes were a part of daily lives. The road ways were lined with billboards that boasted about the flavor of one brand or another, elaborate cigarette ads were a staple of television and actors in movies and TV smoked on screen and off.

In all fairness I need to point out that not all parents found candy cigarettes charming and wouldn’t allow their kids to buy them.  Anyway, candy cigarettes have now gone the way of Ted’s and all other neighborhood markets.

What is still around Ansonia, however, is cancer.

An unusually high number of Ansonians, spread out over several generation are suffering and dying from what I suspect is “Smoke stack effect cancer.” And in this, I’m referring only to the unusually high number of cancer related deaths of Ansonians who didn’t work in the factories but lived close enough to them to possible die from the effects of smoke stack cancer and related maladies.

Bear in mind that in those days, the 1960s, factory pollution was a way of life, not only in Ansonia but across the state of Connecticut and particularly in the heavy industrialized Naugatuck Valley towns as far north as Torrington. And it was everywhere and in everything. Dyes dumped into the water further up the valley from Ansonia caused the Mad and Naugatuck Rivers to change colors. In a number of the mill towns the shops let out clouds of smoke into the night sky when they would go unnoticed unless there was humid weather and the smoke smelled like rotten eggs were burning. It was almost impossible to drive through, near or around the entire town of Naugatuck without being overpowered by the powerful stench bleaching out from the rubber shop.

The Naugatuck River in those days was highly polluted from factory waste and it looked it. The water smelled and changed colors depending on what was dumped in that week by one of the mills who made no apologies for what they were doing. In fact, I recall that for years Farrell’s had a large signed posted on the edge of the river just below the Maple Street Bridge that read, in effect, “We’ll pour anything we like into the river and if you don’t like it, too bad for you.”

And it wasn’t just Farrell’s, American Brass was another long time blatant polluter.

Almost every factory in the valley, including Ansonia, used finishing chemicals, usually arsenic and formaldehyde and God only knows what else, in their products. All of these by products and chemicals found their way into not only our water systems, but into the ground and the air for an unknown number of decades.  I remember asking a neighbor with a big yard why he didn’t have a garden and he replied that he was afraid of what would grow out of it.  (However, delicious blue berries grew wild in a place called Renahan’s wood between North Cliff, Summer and Johnson Streets and there was a fairly large corn field way up on Old Ansonia Road above Colony Pond, which is also polluted)

Younger readers need to know that it wasn’t always that way.  In the 1930s, Ansonians swam in the Naugatuck near Coe Pond and I swam in Colony Pond as a kid. The one body of water not polluted by the factories was the reservoir, which, oddly enough, was owned by the same guys who owned the foundries.  

I remember playing at recess when I was in the Assumption School and the factory on North Main and Liberty Streets, just below the school, would open its smoke stack and pour thousands of tiny black specs into the air and for a while the sky was covered in these specs to the point that it looked like a black snow shower. Whatever those black specs were, they rained down on us and permanently stained the white shirts we were required to wear as part of our uniforms.

Another Assumption alumni, who attended the school in the 1940s, recalled “The most significant memory that I have is that about 2-4 pm every day that Farrell's would vent their casting furnace which was just West of Assumption School. It was an immense plume of yellow/black smoke containing dissolved metals that had to be very toxic. Given the prevailing westerly wind it would come directly over the school and church. I am sure we all ingested some of that toxic stuff. I attended that school from 1941 to 1949, 8 years. Amazing that I'm still alive at 80”

“I used to clean the black soot off the snow before eating it” one resident who lived near the school recalled “Soot was on our window sills, cars, everywhere”

In the late 1960s, soot from the foundries was scraped off of the Eagle Hose Fire Company building, the Assumption School and the Library giving both historic building a new look. One long time Ansonia recalls “Webster and Fountain (Hose Co.) were cleaned too and I would think the school buildings were done too. They all looked like they had been in a big fire”

Today Ansonia has a nearly perfect clean bill of health as far as pollution is concerned but I think we need to pay attention to the last generation that grew up in an industrialized Ansonia, especially those who grew up within walking distance to the mills and foundries because an unusually high number of them seem to be dying off at relatively young ages from cancer, including my younger brother and my old friend Brian Browning who lived on the corner of North Main and 4th.

One North Cliff Street resident said “Just about every house on North Cliff Street was stricken by cancer. You can start with my Mom - breast cancer. Each house was affected by either breast cancer, lung cancer or leukemia. If you remember any of these families: Ventres, Reyer, Bennett, Skodian, Lionettie, Mahoney, Larkin, Soter, Renehan, Shay, all effected. I recommended a class action suit against Farrell Foundry 15 years ago when my mom was first diagnosed. If you check with older families on South Cliff, you will find the same thing.

How many death overall and how do their deaths compare to the national average?

I don’t know.

And that’s the point, I don’t think anybody knows. But they should know. I should know if I grew up in what was, in effect, a giant Petri dish gone wrong. A study should be done to look at the cancer rates within a half–mile radius of the big factories in town. If the numbers hold up than the offenders should pay the aggrieved. It’s the least they can do.