Congratulations, everyone: As expected, the Environmental Protection Agency has designated a block in Ridgewood, Queens as a Superfund site, which means that New York now has three areas that are dangerously toxic enough to warrant a federally funded cleanup (the other two are the ooze-filled Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal). It turns out that 1125 to 1139 Irving Avenue is the most radioactive place in the entire city, thanks to its history as the home of the Wolff-Alport company from 1920 to 1954.
As The New Yorker recently explained, Wolff-Alport was in the business of extracting rare Earth metals from sand, a byproduct of which is the chemical thorium. For years, workers just dumped the thorium right into the sewer (though they later started started selling it to the Atomic Energy Commission for use in nuclear weapons and reactors). According to the EPA, thorium radiation can increase a person’s chances of developing lung and pancreas cancer.
The property is now home to an auto body shop, a deli, and a construction firm. Nearby, there’s an elementary and middle school where radioactive gas was discovered “coming from a hole in an unoccupied storage area” in August 2012. (The hole was soon sealed.) Now that it’s officially a Superfund site, the EPA will have to decide how to make it less likely to make its inhabitants ill. The agency has already installed a “mitigation system” in the building to reduce radiation levels, as well as shields below the floors and sidewalk and a fence around a vacant space next to the businesses. One permanent cleanup solution might involve digging up the poisonous soil and shipping it somewhere.
In the meantime, the people who work on the block and the wider community have been informed of the problem, though there’s not much people can do to protect themselves from the harm that could potentially come from hanging around the area. Everyone else might want to steer clear of that stretch of Irving Avenue for a while, though experience tells us that the Superfund label isn’t always enough to stop New Yorkers from opening a bunch of bars and a Whole Foods in the neighborhood anyway.