Dealing with disease and death, a community fights PCB contamination

By Dana Drugmand

PITTSFIELD, Mass — For more than two decades, Nina McDermott was a fixture at Allendale Elementary School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, teaching third grade to young students. Even after being diagnosed with breast cancer and then kidney cancer McDermott kept working, fighting for her life as well as her job – until it became clear that her battle to beat the disease could not be won.

McDermott’s death in February 2022 left behind a grieving husband and daughter and marked yet another tragic loss for a community already rocked by disease and death. Her family is among several that have recently filed a series of lawsuits attributing dire health problems to toxic chemical contamination that emanated for decades from a now shuttered General Electric (GE) plant.

Allendale Elementary was built in 1950 on a donated parcel of land near property where GE discarded waste materials generated by its manufacturing of electrical transformers and soil from the GE site was used to help fill in school grounds. The waste contained polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, which were banned in 1979 in the US and are linked to an array of human health concerns, including leukemia and other cancers. The chemicals persist in the environment, posing an ongoing threat.

PCBs from the GE plant also “heavily” contaminated the Housatonic River and other areas around the community, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regulators have been working with GE on a cleanup plan, but townspeople say it’s too little too late, and the plan may actually make things worse.

“They’re not telling everybody what’s going on, they’re not telling anybody how dangerous everything is,” said Jessica Sullivan, whose 11-year-old son is battling brain cancer. The boy, Justin Lowery, attended Allendale from Kindergarten through fifth grade and lived for several years with his family in an apartment close to the now-closed GE plant site.

After being diagnosed in 2020, Justin spent about three weeks at Boston Children’s Hospital to undergo a surgical procedure to remove a tumor engulfing his cerebellum.

The contamination of Pittsfield, a city of roughly 50,000 people in western Massachusetts’ Berkshire County, and the surrounding area has spurred a community uprising of sorts. This week back-to-back meetings are being held on Wednesday and Thursday to coordinate action on the PCB contamination concerns.