January 17, 2017
Where Did the Story of My Parkinson’s Begin? Probably in this House
The photo shows 215-217 Prospect Street in Ithaca, NY, where I lived from age 7 to 25. We rented the right half of the house. The Slattery family owned the house and lived in the other half.
The house sits on Ithaca's South Hill. My dad walked up that hill to his job at the Morse Chain Company plant.
My brother Roger still lives in Ithaca. After visiting him several years ago, I realized I didn’t really know what the company did. Something about auto chains, I thought. So I Googled it.
To my surprise, most of the hits described a longtime controversy: a chemical the company used to clean greasy auto chains had apparently contaminated much of the soil on South Hill. Residents have brought class-action lawsuits, claiming that serious health problems have resulted from that contamination.
The toxic chemical has been identified as trichloroethylene (TCE), typically used to decrease metal parts. Googling TCE, I found a 2011 study that made a startling conclusion: people exposed to TCE are six times more likely to develop Parkinson's.
Although the research focused on workplace exposure to TCE (and perchloroethylene, or PERC, another de-greasing agent), most people experience low-level exposure to these solvents. Millions of pounds of the chemicals – which can be detected as contaminants in blood, breast milk, water and food -- are released into the environment each year.
The study authors concluded that while their “findings require replication… the potential public health implications are substantial.”
The report is the first epidemiologic study to associate Parkinson’s with exposure to TCE in a group of people, corroborating previous anecdotal findings.
Here's the Clincher
The Slattery's son Joe was a childhood friend. Through the years, we maintained contact, exchanging brief notes on Christmas cards. About five years ago, Joe's widow sent me a card that included a copy of his obit. My pal had died – yep – of Parkinson's.
So there we have it. Two kids from different families growing up in the same house on a hillside known to be contaminated with TCE.