Magpie Moments: The Toxic Town of Lazarus

This is the third in a series of what I’m calling Magpie Moments, things that I snagged from real life and repurposed into fiction.

I’ll add something new to the series every week until the next Sydney Brennan release. And SPOILER ALERT: you may not want to read these if you haven’t read Back to Lazarus yet.

Ida set her tea glass down and rested her elbows on the table. “I don’t grow fresh mint anymore. I guess you saw Mr. Phillips next door, with his greens and tomatoes in buckets. The EPA man told him it wasn’t safe to eat anything that grew in the ground around here, but Mr. Phillips can’t give up his fresh vegetables. So he buys bags of soil along with his bottled water. He says it’s still better than the fake stuff they sell in the grocery store.” 

Back to Lazarus, Chapter 8

The toxic town featured in my book’s title doesn’t exist, but it was inspired by a real town.

For decades, Monsanto dumped millions of pounds of PCBs in the land and waters of Anniston, Alabama.

The specific image of Mr. Phillips with his mustard greens was inspired by a 2002 New York Times article that really stuck with me. It included a picture of a man growing collard greens in buckets because the soil was contaminated. (Unfortunately the picture isn’t included with the archived article, but I did find a more recent picture of Mr. Stroud, the real man who triggered my fictional Mr. Phillips).

Twelve years later, I still get chills rereading this story, and then I get angry.

PCBs weren’t banned by the U.S. government until 1979, but Monsanto knew of the risks much earlier. The story mentions an instance in the mid-60s when a Monsanto-hired scientist placed 25 fish in one of the creeks they had contaminated. The fish rolled on their sides in 10 seconds and were all dead in a matter of minutes.

To save us all time and a nasty vitriol hangover, I’ll refrain from ranting. (Sorry–can you still hear my brain ranting?) But feel free to check it out for yourself. Anniston is one of those sad stories that most people haven’t heard about, and it definitely remains relevant today.