Times Beach is a town once located in St. Louis County, Missouri, southwest of St. Louis. The town was evacuated in 1983 because of dioxin contamination that made the region unsafe for human occupation. The even constituted the largest recorded exposure to date of humans to dioxin in U.S. history.
In 1971, the town of Times Beach hired wastehauler Russell M. Bliss to spray the streets of the town to keep down dust. Bliss used chemical wastes containing dioxin mixed with oil for this purpose from 1972 to 1976. Bliss obtained the mixture from waste oils and chemicals his company collected from service stations and industrial plants. Much of this toxic waste oil was sprayed on roads throughout Missouri.
Shortly after the spraying around Times Beach began, horses on local farms began dying. At one breeding stable, from 1971 to 1973, 62 horses died, as well as several dogs and cats. Soil samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control (now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]) in Atlanta for analysis, and after three years of testing, the agency determined that dangerous levels of dioxin were present in the soil.
A decade after the spraying, the town experienced the worst flooding in its history. On December 5, 1982, the Meramec River flooded its banks and inundated the town, submerging homes and contaminating them and almost everything else in Times Beach with dioxin. This compound binds tightly to soil and degrades very slowly, so it was still present in significantly high levels ten years after being used on the roads as a dust suppressant. Following a CDC warning that the town had become uninhabitable, most of the families were temporarily evacuated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) eventually agreed to buy out the town for about $33 million and relocate its inhabitants.
By 1983, federal and state officials had located about 100 other sites in Missouri where dioxin wastes had been improperly dumped or sprayed, with levels of the compound reaching as high as 1,750 ppb in some areas.
The former site of Times Beach is now Route 66 State Park, which has hiking and bicycling paths and a historic retelling of the evacuation of the town.
At the time, the CDC considered soil dioxin levels of one part per billion (ppb) and above to be potentially hazardous to human health. Levels found in some areas of Times Beach reached 100 to 300 ppb and above. Dioxin is considered a very toxic chemical. Exposure to this chemical has been linked to cancer, miscarriages, genetic mutations, liver and nerve damage, and other health effects, including death, in humans and animals.
The contamination seemed to take a serious toll on the health of Times Beach residents. Town officials claimed that virtually every household in Times Beach experienced health disorders, ranging from nosebleeds, depression, and chloracne (a severe skin disorder) to cancer and heart disease. Almost all of the residents tested for dioxin contamination showed abnormalities in their blood, liver, and kidney functions.
See also Cancer ; Dioxins ; Hazardous waste ; Love Canal ; Seveso, Italy .
Hernan, Robert Emmet. This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
“Ill-Fated Times Beach.” http://www.legendsofamerica.com/mo-timesbeach.html (accessed September 21, 2012).
Leistner, Marilyn. “The Times Beach Story.” http://www.greens.org/s-r/078/07-09.html (accessed September 21, 2012).
“Times Beach Site.” http://www.epa.gov/region7/cleanup/npl_files/mod980685226.pdf (accessed September 21, 2012).
Lewis G. Regenstein