Former Research Site Is Center Of Health Concern

Posted: September 13, 1987

Inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were in Springfield last week, taking air and soil samples at the site where a research foundation performed radioactive-isotope experiments more than a decade ago.

According to township records, people living in the vicinity of the Bartol Tract, a heavily wooded eight-acre plot near the intersection of Oakdale Place and Baltimore Pike, have complained that cases of cancer in the area could be related to radiation that may be present at the site.

From 1949 to 1978, according to township records, the Bartol Research Foundation, formerly affiliated with Swarthmore College and now located on the campus of the University of Delaware, did research using radioactive isotopes. Most of the isotopes had half-lives of a few days or less, although a few of the isotopes, including cobalt and cesium, have longer half-lives, records show.

Founded in 1926 with money bequeathed to the Franklin Institute from the late Henry W. Bartol, a Philadelphia business executive, the foundation is internationally recognized for its contributions to astrophysics, nuclear physics and the physics of the sun's surface. According to Martin Pomerantz, former director of the center, researchers in Springfield used a five-million- volt generator and radioactive isotopes to study the structure of atomic nuclei.

The foundation was licensed by the NRC to handle the isotopes and was periodically inspected by the state. Although the buildings in which the experiments were conducted were decontaminated and demolished in 1979, residents fear radiation may still be present.

"You should be aware that the current concern among the Springfield residents in this area is very real and is reaching crisis proportion," wrote township manager Michael LeFevre, in a June 9 letter to NRC health physicist Judy Joustron, who performed the tests Thursday.

"For the past several years, the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners has been repeatedly contacted by various community groups concerning what is perceived to be an inordinate amount of cancer deaths in the area surrounding the Bartol Tract. . . . During the last several months, the complaints seem to have intensified," LeFevre wrote to the owner of the tract, developer Claude deBotton, in a letter July 29 scheduling the NRC visit to the site.

The developer could not be reached for comment Thursday.

"When we moved here, I walked into the back yard and looked at all the land behind the house," said a Sheffield Drive resident who asked that her name not be used. "Someone said it was used for atomic testing, and I thought that was funny."

But she began to become concerned when her daughter, who is now 3 1/2, began to get recurring blisters on her hands and feet, and had to be hospitalized for upper-respiratory problems. "She was just sicker than a child should be. . . . I've just had a second child. And he was hospitalized for meningitis. . . . Now this could all be unrelated. . . . But I've never felt peaceful in this house."

Lee Janiczek, commissioner of the ward in which the property is located, said in an interview that he has received complaints from "approximately three families," but stressed that no one has yet produced a conclusive link between the research and any disease.

Township Health Officer Robert Biela, who accompanied the NRC's testers, said he expected to receive results in a few weeks. He said the current wave of concern was brought to his attention when he received a May 26 letter from the Springfield League of Women Voters.

"One former resident states that she knows of at least 30 (cancer) cases, including at least six children, in the last 10 to 12 years. Most of the cases have occurred in close proximity to the Bartol property, specifically Sheffield, Maplewood, Oakdale, Thomson, Gibbons and Church Roads. . . ., " co-presidents Catherine Cox and Lois Hodge wrote.

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