GARFIELD, N.J. The neighborhood looks exceedingly normal: single-family homes and apartment buildings packed together, dogs barking from postage-stamp-size lawns, parents hustling down narrow sidewalks to fetch their children from school. But something with very dangerous potential lies below the surface, officials say.
The residents' toenails will provide confirmation.
A plume of hexavalent chromium, a metal used in industrial production that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls a "well-established carcinogen," has spread under Garfield, putting about one-tenth of the city's homes - about 600 structures and 3,600 residents - at risk.
The Environmental Protection Agency is about to start drilling on the spill site to determine how much chromium is pooled beneath and remove tainted soil. The agency is also testing the broader area to determine how it will be cleaned up. Now a group of scientists from New York University is working to assess how much chromium residents may have been exposed to.
Researchers will collect toenail clippings from city residents. The nails will be tested for traces of chromium. Because toenails grow slowly, it is possible to see how much chromium has accumulated in the body over the past 18 months or so, said Judith Zelikoff, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University.
"Our major goal is to try to relieve their fears," Zelikoff said. "With the economy, they can't sell their homes. They don't know if they got exposed."
The contamination started 30 years ago, when thousands of pounds of hexavalent chromium- the same stuff that sickened Californians whose story was told in "Erin Brockovich" - leaked from a tank at the EC Electroplating Co., a factory surrounded on all sides by houses and apartments. The state started cleaning up the spill but stopped two years later. In 1993, chromium was found at a now-shuttered firehouse and later in homes.
The EPA designated the area as a Superfund site - marking it as of the nation's most toxic uncontrolled hazardous waste sites - in 2011, and officials cautioned residents to stay out of their basements to prevent potential chromium exposure. EPA officials removed chromium from the building and demolished it last year, and found that some tanks had holes in them, potentially releasing even more chromium into the groundwater.
Officials say the contamination has not affected the city's drinking water, which is drawn from an outside source. Instead, they worry that people could inhale chromium dust that has been found in basements where groundwater has leached in.
The chromium plume is about three-quarters of a mile wide and slightly more than an eighth-mile long, EPA officials said. The substance has traveled from the site underneath the Passaic River and into the city of Passaic. The agency has installed about 40 monitoring wells to monitor how far the metal has spread.
"We're trying to find out the extent of the plume," said Rich Puvogel, a project manager with the EPA.
High quantities of the metal have been found in 14 homes that have since been cleaned up. Trace amounts were found in 30 to 40 homes. Testing continues, and a nearby school did not show elevated chromium levels.
Cathy Garrone, who bought a house in the neighborhood in 1985, walked her small dog recently across the street from the site where the plant once stood, a lot now fenced off and peppered with mounds of rocks and dirt.
She said she wouldn't have bought there if she had known about the chromium spill, and thinks much more testing needs to be conducted, both of the environment and people.
"I'd like them to do more testing to assure my safety," she said.
The research study is being done in conjunction with the city of Garfield. Officials are hoping the testing can bring some answers to residents.
"It's just been left," Zelikoff said. "A lot of people made mistakes."
Zelikoff and her team hope to test as many as 250 residents; some must live close to the plume and others about 3 miles away as a control group. When residents sign up, they will be given a kit that contains stainless steel toenail clippers (cheap ones contain chrome), instructions on how to clip the nails (samples from all 10 are needed) and an envelope for the clippings. It will take weeks to know the results, and people will be advised by public health nurses and others once the results return.
Test subjects must be between 18 and 65, have lived in Garfield for at least two years, not take chromium supplements, and not smoke.
Many residents are immigrants and relative newcomers, and some don't know about the contamination, Zelikoff said. City officials are working to educate residents, disseminating information about the cleanup to local churches and in four languages: English, Spanish, Polish and Macedonian, said city manager Tom Duch.
Duch said an initial health consultation indicates that there's no higher incidence of cancer in the neighborhood than anywhere else in the city, but he thinks the issue needs additional scientific testing.
"I have some concerns," Duch said. "There are residents who have come to meetings and said, 'This one died, that one died,' and I think it warrants further investigation."