Health Effects of Pollutants Released by Facilities

compiled by Jessica Howington and Christina Viola, SPEEC

Ninety Percent of the toxic chemicals produced in Delaware County are produced in Chester. We’re going to take you through some of those pollutants. We’ll tell you where they may come from and what effect they have on a person. Now, when we say something like, “Lead can lead to impaired hearing, we must remind you that impaired hearing is a possible health effect of exposure to lead; we don’t mean to accuse every waste facility in Chester of having caused all the health problems ever. It’s hard to deduce a clear cause-and-effect relationship between a certain pollutant and a certain health effect, because:

  • the human body is subject to a number of environmental and behavioral influences which can contribute to poor health, and
  • with all of the facilities in Chester, it’s hard to pinpoint the pollutants of one facility and to determine how each of those pollutants affects a person’s health.

You can’t run flawless biological experiments on people’s lives.That said, we’ll start telling you about some of the pollutants of Chester. First of all, let’s start with:


In addition to the lead commonly found in old paint and in the pipes of old houses, Chester residents are exposed to an even higher level of lead from the burning of metal in the Westinghouse incinerator and of solid waste in the Delcora sewage treatment incinerator. A 1995 Risk Assessment Study for the city of Chester by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the children of Chester have blood lead levels that are unacceptably high; 60% of blood samples were found to be above the Center for Disease Control’s recommended maximum level.

  • High levels of lead can impair the function of the nervous system
  • Lead impairs the manufacture of hemoglobin, so that the oxygen transport in the bloodstream is impaired
  • Lead is linked to low birth weight babies — Chester has the highest percentage of low-weight births in the state, nearly double the percentage for Delaware County. The infant mortality rate in Chester is also double that of the county as a whole.

Lead can lead to:

  • decreased intelligence (Very high levels of lead can cause brain damage)
  • anemia
  • kidney toxicity
  • impaired development [of children]
  • colic

Particulate Matter

Airborne particulate matter consists of droplets or particles of solid matter. It’s a component of soot, vehicle emissions, uncontrolled combustion and the mechanical breakup of soil. So Westinghouse, Delcora, and the Soil Remediation Services incinerator are likely to emit particulate matter.
Particulate matter causes:

  • respiratory disease[s]
  • breathing difficulties

Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur dioxide comes from the soot and ash emitted by the Westinghouse, Delcora, and Soil Remediation Services incinerators.
Sulfur dioxide causes irritation of:

  • eyes
  • nose
  • throat

Sulfur dioxide also leads to lung cancer and to:

  • bronchitis– A health survey conducted by CRCQL and by Swarthmore students working with Clean Air Council revealed that 11.2 percent of Chester residents have had chronic bronchitis, compared to the 5 percent of the national population that has had chronic bronchitis, according to a national health survey.
  • damage to the primary immune system

Cilia which line the trachea catch foreign particles and expel them. Sulfur dioxide causes these cilia to clump together so that fewer ciliated cells and more mucus cells are produced.This allows particulates to enter the body!You can see the synergistic effects of these pollutants; for example, one pollutant such as sulfur dioxide can lead to lung disease, making a person more susceptible to the breathing difficulties brought about by another pollutant such as particulate matter.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide comes from the incomplete burning of hydrocarbons that occurs during combustion at Westinghouse, Delcora, and Soil Remediation Services. Another major source of carbon monoxide is emissions from the trucks going to and from the waste facilities.

  • Carbon monoxide decreases the carrying capacity of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen through the blood. This oxygen deprivation can lead to impaired mental abilities.
  • Chronic low-level exposure to carbon monoxide may increase blood coagulation
  • Carbon monoxide speeds the uptake of cholesterol, which clogs the arteries. This can lead to heart disease.

Nitrous Oxides

Nitrous oxides come from high temperature combustion, such as the combustion of soil in the Soil Remediation Systems, and the combustion of municipal and industrial wastes in the Westinghouse incinerator.
Nitrous oxides can cause irritation of:

  • eyes
  • throats (especially in children and in people with respiratory problems)

Nitrous oxides cause cells to make more of ICAM-1, the receptor for the virus that causes

  • colds and
  • asthma (13.4 percent of Chester residents have asthma, as opposed to the national average of 4.1 percent.)

Nitrous oxides can also lead to lung and respiratory problems (especially for children)
Under certain conditions, NOx can react to form ozone, which irritates the nose and throat and can also impair lung function.


Arsenic results from Delcora’s burning of sludge.
Arsenic leads to:

  • lung disease, especially lung cancer
    (in fact, Chester has a lung cancer mortality rate about 60% higher than the rates for Delaware County.)

Hydrochloric Acid (HCl)

Hydrochloric acid is released in major quantities by combustion and by the burning of paper, plastic, and municipal waste.
Hydrochloric acid causes irritation of:

  • eyes
  • mouth
  • throat
  • airways
  • skin (even leading to skin burns)

Hydrochloric acid causes irritation of the nose this can include ulceration of the nasal septum
Hydrochloric acid also leads to:

  • erosion of tooth enamel
  • sneezing
  • laryngitis
  • chest pain
  • hoarseness
  • a feeling of suffocation

Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin = dioxin = TCDD

Sources of dioxin in Chester include Delcora’s emissions and the incineration of plastics at Westinghouse. It accumulates in living tissue because it’s attracted to fats and oils, and because it has a half life of 10 to 30 years, it stays with you for a long time.

It can cause:

  • chloracne (skin irritation caused by certain chlorinated organic compounds)
  • liver toxicity
  • kidney toxicity
  • disrupts genes that control synthesis and metabolism of hormones, enzymes, growth factors, etc.
  • has adverse effects on the immune system
  • disrupts DNA structure, affecting the reproductive system
  • infertility
  • endometriosis
  • Dioxin can have even more drastic effects on children.

Because Dioxin is passed through a mother’s breast milk at concentrations from 20 to 60 times the amount the mother is exposed to, it can cause:

  • decreased growth of children
  • abnormal hormone function in children

The residents of Chester are bombarded with pollutants every day. They’re living this presentation– and, to some extent, we all are. The air pollution from Chester isn’t just contained in the few blocks where the waste facilities are.

An important point to keep in mind is that the actual or probable physiological effects of these chemicals are only part of the story. The ugly facilities, noxious odors and constant rumbling of trucks bringing in waste take their toll on people for whom they are part of the daily routine.

And for many Chester residents, the mental anguish of knowing their families are probably at risk but not knowing exactly how or why is the worst part. Parents worry about their children being affected by pollutants that they can neither see nor detect. How do you protect a child from the air he or she breaths? “What Chester makes makes Chester”… the trouble is that no one’s quite sure what sort of toxins Chester’s making these days. That’s the uncertainty that Chester residents and their families have to live with.

Last modified: 22 June 1996