By Alexa Besgen,
Before he was examining the toxicity of New York state, Walter Hang was trying to cure cancer. Spending hours in labs testing chemicals on mice and giving children doses of chemotherapy wasn’t as rewarding as he thought it would be, and he soon realized he wasn’t helping as much as he wanted to. Hang, who is the founder of Ithaca’s Toxics Targeting, says he knew exactly what he wanted to do after stumbling upon a cancer map in a library. His mission? To protect public health from environmental causes of cancer. “When I saw that cancer map, that’s when it hit me,” he says. “I thought, if we could prevent the public’s exposure, then we wouldn’t have to treat or cure anything.”
Hang’s interest in the effects of toxic chemicals started when he was a junior researcher with NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group), hired to look at wastewater discharges and dumps. After lobbying in Albany, and conducting endless amounts of research, Hang discovered that there were inadequately controlled wastewater discharges, which, when left untreated, can elevate the level of toxic chemicals in drinking water along with cancer mortality rates.
Growing up in the Hudson Valley, Hang says he, like most people, didn’t think much about the toxicity of drinking water. “People never thought, years ago, that there would be all of these problems,” he says. “But that’s now a reality.”
After marrying, Hang spent essentially all the money he had to make one map of an area in Brewster, NY, and figured out how to locate the surrounding toxic areas. He now has 27 categories of toxic site data. His company works on locating toxic areas all around New York State, from examining gas stations to looking at private lots and commercial properties. “We really started our company to help individuals protect their own health,” he says. “Go somewhere else where you won’t eat, breathe and drink toxic waste fumes.”
Hang’s work led him to launch the Toxics Targeting website, www.toxicstargeting.com , where the user can type in virtually any address in New York State and see if there are any potential toxic threats to that area of land. The results come up in a bird’s eye view of the area, a street view and a Google map view. The toxic sites maps give a detailed view of the site and allow viewers to see landfills, dumps, leaking tanks and pollution discharges, and if they want, request a detailed report. “The reason the website is great is because people can do exactly what I did,” he says. “They can find the sites and use the data to check out their neighborhood and see if they live near a toxic site… it’s important for people to take advocacy actions to make sure these sites are cleaned up.”
Making sure sites are cleaned up has been one of Hang’s major endeavors. “We’ve been working for ten years to clean up Cayuga Lake,” he says. Along with trying to rid Cayuga Lake of excessive amounts of phosphorous, Hang has been working to clean up the former Ithaca Gun site, long-abandoned and filled with hazardous waste. In 2008, former NY governor Eliot Spitzer announced a $2.3 million grant to rehabilitate the site. Hang says once he finds out about a toxic site, he raises the issue to everyone he knows, which leads to more press coverage and a better chance of cleaning up the area.
Still, Hang says he can’t do it alone and it’s important to realize that toxic waste is everywhere. “The further you go out in the country, the more risk of being near a landfill,” he says. He encourages people to do what they can to make sure that they don’t live near or on a toxic area. “Get editorial support,” he advises. “Then throw more fuel on the political fire and work with your assembly reps, who will write letters to get health authorities to help. Ordinary citizens can take action.”
Ultimately, Hang says that he is trying to help build a better community. “I believe that public service is a really good thing, and I want people to clean up their communities."