Something Rotten

For more than a decade, Ramsey County officials blew off Ralph Sletten's complaints about the local compost site. Then a test found Agent Orange in the water.

Even if future tests bring more detail about just what chemicals are at the Maplewood compost site, it's possible the Slettens and Behrenses will never resolve the mystery that has dogged them for the past decade. "Every time we get a new piece of information and we think we have a handle on this, they throw something else at us," Beth Sletten says. "It's hard to put into words, but Pat [Williams] knows more about us than we do ourselves."

Jana Freiband

Last week, Williams presented the families with a brand-new dilemma: He'd gotten the results of DNA tests commissioned to document their legal claim of "chemical injury." The news, he told them, was both good and bad: There was nothing wrong with Ralph Sletten and Margaret Behrens's DNA. But Beth and her mother's genes showed anomalies--missing or extra "X" chromosomes, and a phenomenon called "fragile DNA" whose health implications range from possible birth defects in a woman's offspring to increased risk of cancer and immune-suppression diseases.

Both women's test results, Williams contends, are consistent with chemical exposure. "Many of the chemicals found on that site cause DNA damage," he says. And there's other evidence, he maintains, that the families have been exposed to hazardous substances. Doctors at United Hospital recently diagnosed Beth Sletten and Margaret Behrens with Restricted Airway Disease, an asthma-like condition. In Beth's case, the diagnosis identified "chemical exposure" as the likely culprit.

But proving such a direct connection, counters the UM's Garry, is nearly impossible. No matter what the doctors may say, he explains, it is difficult to determine whether airway disease has been chemically or biologically induced, let alone which chemical is to blame. As for chromosome testing, he says, the technique is still in its infancy: Scientists have identified DNA "fingerprints" for only a few chemicals, none of which appear at the site.

All of this ambivalence, however, only serves to compound Beth Sletten's fears. "I cried when they told me" about the DNA results, she says. "I know this stuff is new, but it's scary. No one can say what it's going to develop into."

For now, officials insist there's no reason for concern. The MPCA's Wirth says she will reserve judgment on the families' case until more medical tests have been conducted. But, she adds, neither the Maplewood site nor its counterparts around the state constitute a health hazard to the public. "They are perfectly safe, and people should continue to use them," says Wirth. No other compost site, she says, has attracted the kind of complaints Maplewood has, and there are no plans to require testing of the facilities. "The state is committed to composting," she concludes.

So, according to assistant county attorney McLaughlin, is Ramsey County. "We have to be environmentally proactive," he says. "This is a good thing, this cycle-of-life stuff."

How long that upbeat attitude will last is another matter. "[Composting] technology is really new," says Andy Streifel, a researcher at the UM's Department of Environmental Health. "And since the state has only begun exploring this for the last five or six years, the questions are still evolving." Streifel adds that workers at the university's own compost site have had gastrointestinal problems caused by "some poopy bug" and that all compost sites "have the potential" to make people sick. "We just don't know enough yet," he says. "As the industry matures, these kinds of issues will be pushed to the forefront."

But that maturity, Beth Sletten says, may come too late for her family. Their next court date is May 12, and it could take months more of research until a jury hears their complaint. And no court, she says, can provide what the family would really like. "My father sums it up best: 'I just wish I could have the last decade back.'"

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