Growing up in West Hanover, Nick Squires and his friends thought little of the countless hours they spent playing in the woods and ponds of a 240-acre property where a fireworks manufacturer and other companies are now known to have dumped toxic chemicals for decades.
It wasn’t until years later that Squires says he realized that spending so much time living alongside land once considered a sure-fire candidate for a federal Superfund site may have made him and others sick.
After being diagnosed in 2015 with oligodendroglioma, a rare brain tumor, Squires told The Patriot Ledger he noticed that an alarming number of other young adults who grew up in his neighborhood were fighting, and dying from, brain tumors.
Through social media alone, Squires said he has found at least 35 people who were diagnosed with brain tumors and lived for an extended time within about 2 or 3 miles of the National Fireworks Co. site, where crews are now working to unearth unexploded ordnance buried decades ago. Many of these cases involve people diagnosed as young adults who lived near Factory or Forge ponds or the Drinkwater River.
The number of new cases of brain and other nervous system cancers among the general population is about 6.4 per 100,000 people each year, according to the National Cancer Institute, and a 2005 report estimated about 2,014 people lived within a 1-mile radius of the site based on data from the late 1990s. Squires said based on that data, there should be maybe one person diagnosed with a brain tumor in the area around the fireworks site, not dozens.
“I had anxiety about coming out and talking about this because I know it can cause panic,” said Squires, a married father of three children, including 4-month-old twin boys. “But there’s something very wrong here, and people have the right to know.”
The National Fireworks Co. began developing, testing and manufacturing civilian fireworks and military munitions at the site near the Hanson town line in 1907, and disposed of chemicals there until it closed in 1971.
The property was then purchased by American Potash and Co., which operated there for a few years before selling the land to the Atlantic Research Corp., a government contractor that produced explosives for the Army and the Navy, and also allowed other entities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to dump hazardous waste on its property.
In the mid-1980s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found several dozen barrels of toxic waste around the property and indications that many had been dumped, according to several reports. Some of the toxins found include chloroform, Freon, arsenic, trichloroethene and vinyl chloride.
A variety of heavy metals, including mercury, were found in the soil and water around the former factory, setting off a decadeslong effort to clean up 140 acres between King and Winter streets. While the contamination was measured at twice the threshold for earning Superfund status — a federal program that prioritizes and funds the cleanup of hazardous sites — town officials asked the state to oversee the cleanup to avoid the federal process and stigma that came with it.
“People deserve to know that the site saw more than 60 years of unadulterated contamination with chemicals I can’t even pronounce, and not small quantities,” Squires said, flipping through stacks of research and reports about the site he’s collected.