Relatives blame prolonged exposure at wood-treatment facility for Carbondale family’s cancers

On the verge of the Great Depression, Fredrick Tisdale, one of the only black farmers in Carbondale, moved north of the former Koppers Inc. wood-treating plant to start a family and plant roots in the town.

Tisdale built a house very close to the plant, originally called Tie Addition and named after its former owners Ayer and Lord. Fifty years later, cows began dying on a nearby farm. Eight out of his 11 children eventually contracted some form of cancer.

Finally, this past winter, after decades of pleas for help, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention informed grandson Darryl Tisdale that it would investigate any links between the creosote pollution from the plant and the Tisdales’ cancers.

In a June letter, CDC said Illinois health officials “will evaluate possible exposures to environmental contaminants and the potential for harmful health effects for the community near the Former Koppers Wood Treatment facility. The findings of the public health evaluation will be documented in a written report called a Health Consultation, along with recommendations for further actions, if warranted, to protect public health.”

Magdalene Tisdale-Davis, one of six daughters born to Tisdale and his wife Ethel Lee, said she grew up so close to the plant that her birth certificate recorded the Tie Addition plant, as her birthplace because her father’s house had no physical address in 1930.

Davis, a retired school psychologist living in Atlanta, Georgia,  said she remembers her family playing, raising and eating crops such as sweet potatoes, corn, soybeans, and strawberries on their farm next to the plant.

“I remember my father being the largest sweet potato producer there in [Carbondale] Illinois,” Davis said.  

Davis said she and her siblings played in a pond or lagoon bordering the plant, between the home, farm, and the plant. 

Davis said when she and her siblings were playing one day while bringing back their family’s cattle from drinking at the pond, one of her youngest sisters, Eva Tidwell, fell into a big tub of creosote sitting alongside the plant fence separating the industrial site from her family’s property. 

Davis said after the horrific accident, Eva could not participate in any sports or the school band because of persistent lung issues caused by being exposed to the creosote.

According to the CDC,  creosote can cause cancer and respiratory issues. It has an amber to black color typically used as a pesticide to treat and preserve wood products.

After Eva’s exposure to the chemical, Davis said she could not play the clarinet because of a diagnosis with black lung disease attributed to creosote contamination.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, creosote can cause pneumoconiosis when the lungs cannot get rid of the substance, causing inflammation leading to scar tissue in the ling. 

Following the incident and lung affliction, Eva bore a son, James Shelton. Shelton was raised at the Tisdale home and farm permanently as his mother lived there since she was born. 

Shelton displayed disabilities present at birth that the family attributes to his mother’s exposure to creosote which hindered Shelton’s mobility, communication, and writing.

Over the years, Shelton had struggled with his condition and was hospitalized most of his life until he died in 2010, Davis said.  

Eva continued fighting her lung disease but as time went on she developed aggressive breast cancer. This diagnosis drove her to receive cancer treatment and genetic testing at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona,to investigate whether her cancer was caused by your childhood environment or family genes.

The tests revealed that Eva’s cancer was not due to hereditary reasons but to environmental causes.

According to the investigation done by the clinic, Eva’s genes did not show any evidence that she was predisposed to the disease, although predispositions can not entirely be ruled out and more genetic testing should be done.

Eva died in 2019 from her cancer.

Davis said because of Eva’s death and the prevalence of cancer in her other siblings she thinks emissions originating from the Koppers plant over a long period of time throughout the years caused a cancer cluster in her family. 

Davis said she and her siblings had sustainable, significant health problems resulting from environmental pollution of the pond the family played in, the soil her family planted and ate from, and the water the family droke from their residential well everyday unaware of creosote in it.

Davis said she remembers her sister Florence went to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis for cervical or ovarian cancer treatment but died in 1954. Florence bore a daughter named Ida Rabon who developed lung cancer and died in 2011.

Tisdale-Davis said her sister Martha was treated at Kaiser Sunset in Los Angeles, CA., for breast cancer, later dying in 1982.

Nannie Weber, a sister of Davis, received treatment at Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, for breast cancer and had a mastectomy. However, cancer spread to her bones, causing her death in 2002. 

Ms. Weber bore a son named Darryl Weber who said he believes his mother’s cancer is attributed to exposure from living next to the plant over the years. 

A brother of Davis, Wilberforce Tisdale, was diagnosed with prostate cancer  and died 1997 after receiving treatment at  Kaiser Hospital in LA.   

Ethel Mae, named after the family’s mother, sought treatment at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, after fighting a 16-pound tumor in her stomach, later dying in 1999 eight years after the close of the Koppers plant. 

Koppers was forced to close after contamination was found off plant site property in Glade creek, allegedly killing fish and two cows. The autopsy of the cow concluded that creosote was in the stomach of the livestock resulting in their deaths. 

Davis said Russell Smith Sr. and Russell Smith Jr. owned the cows at the Smith farm located north of the plant and received a paid settlement. 

Davis also said the land on the Smith farm was originally owned by her father, Tisdale who sold the land to a third-party, and who sold the land to the Smith’s. 

The Smiths did not want to provide comment for this story nor did the city of Carbondale have any record of paid compensation toward the Smith farm.

The only survivor

Davis said she was tired with pain and soreness on her right breast one day.

 Davis said she originally received treatment at the John Wayne Cancer clinic in Santa Monica, California. 

“There was a little growth at the size of about a pea and I went to the doctor, and they did not think it was anything,” Davis said. 

Tisdale-Davis said she reported the size of the lump to her son, who was in Georgetown medical school, and he provided her with the information she believes saved her life.

She received further breast cancer treatment at the University of California Los Angeles with an oncologist, a doctor who studies cancer.

Davis said the oncologist aspirated the growth, which is the use of a fine needle aspiration to test for breast cancer and found the disease. 

“I ended up having a lumpectomy, radiation, chemotherapy, and followed some of the best cancer people,” Davis said.  

Davis said she is the only cancer survivor in her family and believes most of her siblings died from cancer after being exposed to the chemical contamination.

Davis said she thinks the contact her family had with soil on the family farm, emissions from the facility, and water in the residential well and the local pond exposed them to creosote and caused their cancer. 

Davis said many people lived in Carbondale throughout the years as her family did, moved to different cities and died from cancer in other parts of the country. 

“I can only tell you about our family…I can’t tell you about all the other people who went to school with me that died of cancer,” Davis said. 

“I just know that they did,” Davis said. 

Davis and Mr. Weber said that their family should receive compensation for the deaths of their relatives and other families who experienced the disease while living near the plant should also.

Some residents currently living near the former plant think what is happening involving the handling of Koppers contamination is environmental racism.

Escaping one type of racism for another

Davis’s parents relocated to Carbondale to get away from harm after losing everything during the Tulsa riots near Boley, Oklahoma. 

The demolition of the Tisdale house happened long ago, but the family still owns the land to this day. 

The family’s children produced 34 grandchildren who were not diagnosed with cancer.  

Editor’s note:  In 1981 two cows grazing on the Smith farm near the Koppers Inc. tie plant in Carbondale in southern Illinois died from exposure to creosote, a toxic chemical used to protect railroad ties from the weather. A predominantly Black community nearby had close contact with water and soil contaminated by creosote. Eight of 11 children in the Tisdale family, which lived right next to the plant, have died of cancer since then. But the government did little to investigate the health effects on residents and media coverage was spotty.

About the same time that the cows were dying in Carbondale, the CDC discovered horses dying in Missouri horse arenas where Russell Bliss had spread dioxin-contaminated oil on dirt to keep down the dust. One entire town, Times Beach, has its roads covered with the toxic oil. The response was national, thanks in large part to the media spotlight from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and national news organizations. The dioxin problem came to symbolize the Reagan administration’s weak handling of environmental problems and toxic waste. CDC recommended buying out Times Beach, which it did. Anne Gorsuch had to quit as director of EPA because of her mishandling of this and other pollution problems. Her top official for toxic waste, Rita Lavelle, went to prison for lying to Congress about her misuse of Superfund money. 

The Post-Dispatch published a special section – Dioxin Quandary of the 80s.  The government dug up the contaminated soil and incinerated it. 

But nothing like that government response came to Carbondale. It took until June, 2022 – this past summer – for CDC to open an investigation of the cancer cluster in the Tisdale family. Experts from nearby SIUC argue that the government should have been much more aggressive digging up the soil and studying health effects on citizens. 

Clarissa Cowley received her MS in media management in May, 2022 from SIUC. Her senior project focused on environmental racism and the impact of the Koppers creosote contamination on a small Black community in Carbondale. She is now a Producer-In-Residence at 5 On Your Side at KSDK in St. Louis.

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