The first account of potent chemical use in Fairfield was mentioned by Roscoe DeBaun in his description of the ‘Hatters’ who labored over a 42” steaming lead kettle of a copper sulfate solution known as ‘blue vitriol’. Eight men worked all day around the kettle with their bare hands and brushed the hot blue solution onto felt gauze ‘hat bodies’ to shrink them down. This was hazardous enough, but compared to mercury solutions of the previous century, this exposure was far less lethal. ‘Mad as a Hatter’ was an old expression from the mid 1800’s that explained a hatter’s ‘erratic flamboyant behavior, excessive drooling, mood swings, and various other debilities’. First among the major studies of mercury poisoning in the American felt-hat industry was that made by New Jersey Dr. J. A. Freeman and reported in 1860. But mercury was not outlawed by the U.S Public Health Service until eighty years later in 1941.
The harmful effects of mercurous sulfate became obvious, but many other less harmful chemicals were introduced into Fairfield’s Agriculture and Industry as we grew and ‘modernized’ with emerging new chemical entities.
Remember my ‘greenhouse’ piece that told how we sterilized planting soil with electric heat coils ? Years later a more modern and convenient method was introduced : ( Highly Toxic ) Methyl Bromide soil gassing. This was not the doings of ignorant or careless Farmers , but rather the innovative use of chemicals advised by the leading university scholars and agricultural experts of the day.
( Notice only Farmers is capitalized :- )
We had many such technological advances ‘back in the day.’ Benzene, Creosote, DDT, chlordane, and various other pesticides. Now, at least, you need a N.J. Pesticide Applicator Certificate on Farms, Nurseries, Greenhouses, Orchards, etc.
Fairfield Industry was similarly unaware of the many chemical hazards in the workplace, and especially within their waste streams. I recall the ‘dump’ Curtiss- Wright had at the far eastern end of their employee parking lot off New Dutch Lane. It was a colorful array of sludge’s, debris, and factory waste bi products. Right next to the Deepavaal Brook !
The following illustrations help provide some historical context :
Remember the fun you had running through the mosquito fogging vapors on summer evenings ? This was usually DDT with an occasional splash of chlordane added to a petroleum based aerosol. ( Fairfield DPW’s Freddy Hyatt, ‘Red’ Esposito, and Lou Batta really meant no harm :- ) :- ) :- ) ( Google Images Photo )
Great advice ( above ) from Popular Science in 1963. ( I must confess, we had an abandoned ‘rat hole’ on the farm that we often treated with waste motor oil and dirty petroleum solvents. I guess we made sure those rats weren’t coming back. )
About 1982 I was cleaning out my Aunt’s old garden shed and noticed a brand new / never used Ortho Lawn Sprayer she obtained from our Route 46 Road Stand 20 years before.
Packaged inside were suggestions for usage so I took them out to review. The best guidance was: if you were having a lawn party and wanted to rid the backyard of mosquitoes - spray the entire yard with Chlordane ! What great state-of-the-art advice. Children could roll around in the smartly treated – mosquito free grass. Lovely.
These were a few of the things we were haplessly doing back then. Maybe you can recall some things even more frightening?
Another source of pollution was rusted out underground gasoline tanks. One way to find out that your tank was rusted thru was to unknowingly pump a couple of gallons of water into a farm vehicle. Yep, did that to my station wagon. Gas line froze up solid on Little Falls Road one bitterly cold night. Drained the tank – 2 gallons of water ( surprised it ran so well for 15 miles ! ). Time to call the Sisco Brothers at Fairfield Maintenance. Take a wild guess on how many crates of vegetables you need to sell to pay for a new 2,000 gallon fuel storage tank ?
Another instance of pollution I witnessed was a firm making industrial circuit boards near our farm. Streams of blue liquid were running into a ditch that fed into the Deepavaal. One call to the Passaic Valley Water Commission ended that nasty discharge that could have eventually found its way into our irrigation pond.
But as Fairfield sections transformed from Farmlands into ‘Light Industrial’ development the need for factory waste removal grew dramatically. It was about this time when one of the most famous books about the dangers of pesticides and related chemicals was first published. Entitled “Silent Spring”, it was written in 1963 by a courageous woman – Rachel Carson ( interlibrary 363.7384 CAR ). This book is often credited with launching the entire Environmental Movement. Not only was she fighting off the Chemical Companies who made these poisons, but she was also fighting off breast cancer at the same time. Tough Lady.
Her Biography “Rachel Carson : Witness for Nature” by Linda Lear is also available ( interlibrary Biography Carson ).
The U.S. EPA and NJ DEP were still 7 years in the future when the surges in serious chemical wastes emerged in suburban Fairfield and the surrounding areas. Newark, Kearny, Jersey City, and other industrialized NJ Cities were already greatly contaminated by large chemical, paint and petroleum companies. Of course Fairfield wanted to attract ‘clean’ industry, but even these smaller firms had residues and waste that could no longer be surface dumped at the property line. In the beginning, some toxic wastes were comingled with some sanitary sewage and some other liquid wastes.
Without testing, even trusted and reliable waste disposal firms were unaware of the exact components they were hauling away for their many customers. Conventional disposal of septic sludge was sun drying lagoons that eventually yielded a dry fill. This worked well before toxic wastes were added in later years.
Caldwell Trucking based in Fairfield was one such waste disposal company that utilized drying lagoons. I personally walked through their ‘lagoon’ field just north of where West Essex H.S. was being built at the time. I’m sure I got a much better look at it than the WEHS site selection committee!
Decades of hindsight and zillions of DEP/EPA regulations later Fairfield has a major toxic waste ‘Superfund’ site that – thank goodness - is now in the latter stages of remediation.
In the 1953 ‘Pogo Papers’ author Walt Kelly wrote the following words of Okefenokee Swamp wisdom:
“There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things that make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving, and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”
17 years later Walt Kelly “recycled” the ‘We have met the Enemy’ concept into various pictorials about pollution.
We all came a long way during those 17 years, whether you were a Farmer, a Waste Hauler, an Environmentalist, or a Comic Strip Author.
Dedicated to Rachel Carson, a true trailblazer in 1963 and forever a Global Legacy.
................Paul Pollio January 16, 2019