Marie Therese “Terry” Martin, a Rumford native who grew up in the town in the 1950s, has written her memoir, “And Poison Fell from the Sky: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Survival in Maine’s Cancer Valley,” due for publication by Islandport Press in early December. Submitted photo

Marie Therese “Terry” Martin, a Rumford native, has written her memoir, “And Poison Fell from the Sky: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Survival in Maine’s Cancer Valley,” about growing up in the 1950s in the western Maine river valley. Martin writes about how later in her life she and her husband Dr. Edward Martin came to realize the serious cancer-causing health implications for the people of the area, likely caused by the toxic chemicals emitted by the paper mill in Rumford.

Growing up in the 1950s, you and a friend sometimes played a “don’t breathe” game as you ran along downtown Rumford streets on Saturday mornings. Explain the game and your current deeper realization of why this game was a form of self-protection at the time. 

It was self-protection, even if we were too young to know it. “Don’t breathe” was a way to run without our lungs hurting.
In dangerous situations, we look for ways to survive. As kids on our way to a fun Saturday morning in the business center of our hometown, we thought we were safe. We lived as though we were, unaware of the chemicals lurking in our environment and invading our own bodies. We were the innocent ones. Unknowingly we were being assaulted by chemicals whose names were unfamiliar to us.

We turned our survival into a game as we ran from the assault of caustic chemicals to places that felt safer. The oldest guidance system in the world, our nose and our sense of smell, told us these chemicals were dangerous. We covered our mouths as we ran from areas that irritated our nasal passages and our eyes. We understood, even at our young age that the air hurt our lungs and the solution was to run from it.

Returning home at the end of the 1960s, I was now living directly across the river from the papermill. Our quality of life was affected by the same caustic smells that I remembered as a child, only it seemed worse. I came to the same conclusion as an adult that I had as a child and would run from it again. We moved to a safer place fourteen miles outside the valley, upriver from the prevailing winds and outside the granite bowl.

The girl I played that game with as a child died of cancer in her fifties.


As a nurse and the wife of a doctor working and living in Rumford in the early 1970s you both realized that the “water, air, chemicals, unregulated dumping, cancer, disease — they’re all connected!” as your husband said at the time. What made you both come to this conclusion? 

We didn’t come to that realization together. The initial conclusion belonged to Doc in the 1970s when he connected the dots early on. At the time, my experience with these issues was in its infancy. Doc had a different frame of reference. As a long-time physician in the town, his perspective was more developed than mine. Dealing with new cancer cases in the medical office every day was what broadened my experience.

Together we became whistle-blowers attempting to alert our state agencies, legislators, governors, lobbyists, environmental organizations, newspapers and more of the danger. But there was little appetite for this kind of information at the time. Doc took most of the heat, attending meetings, writing letters and fighting the battles that ensued. People got upset because it threatened a thriving economy. There were few who, during this time period, were willing to come to a bargaining table for an honest discussion.

It’s important when looking back to see things as they were at the time. In the seventies and eighties, there were few environmental groups and fewer that would support public safety. No one wanted to challenge the paper-making industry as company money controlled the state. Yes, there were groups looking to protect loons, fish, and birds. Not so many looking to protect humans.

Edmund Muskie – a Maine native, the governor of Maine in the 1950s and the U.S. Secretary of State from 1959 to 1980 – created the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972, leading to laws and regulations to protect the environment. However, you write that the “paper industry as a whole was given carte blanche (to pollute the environment) … the very definition of a devil’s bargain.” Why did you make this statement? 

Because, having grown up in Rumford, Edmund Muskie lived and experienced the issues of pollution firsthand. Although he crafted two of the most important environmental laws of the century, those laws were never enforced in the paper mill towns. Federal politics and too much money prevented any substantial change. The existing situation was good for state economics, town finances and papermill profits, but it came at a huge cost for those diagnosed with mill town cancers.


In 2001, you and four other local women joined together to form a group called Western Maine Citizens for Clean Air and Water. Was your group able to affect positive change in the paper mill industry in Rumford or bring more awareness to the toxic chemicals generated by the mill? 

As women addressing the issues of pollution, we were invited to present at the Common Ground Fair, calling attention to our mission as a statewide issue. After Doc died, we fought the battle for five years. As I wrote in my book, there is nothing sexy about fighting pollution and at the time, the momentum wasn’t there.

Referring to the environment and the paper mill in your epilogue, the last line of your book reads, “We did our part and nothing changed.” Why did you make this statement, and what makes you say that nothing changed? 

In my opinion, people are still being made sick by chemical emissions from these factories. Little has changed in the attitude toward the consequences of chemical pollution. It is still an accepted trade for jobs.

And victims of these consequences never forget. They remember what they have lived through. They remember those they have lost and those who died too young. They remember trips to hospitals, doctor’s offices, radiation departments and oncology treatments. They are victims of a corporate policy that took care of the stockholder and forgot the people that did the work.

But remembering is not enough. Change is needed. We need fresh eyes on issues that involve the environment. While it is true that paper mills have been obligated by law to make environmental changes they have done so kicking and screaming. The mill has been sold multiple times since I was a child. To my knowledge, none of the owners have taken responsibility for the chemicals that polluted the environment in my hometown.

So, we are left with these “forever chemicals.” And forever means forever.

Reporter’s note: The mill in Rumford was acquired by a company from China, Nine Dragons Paper Holdings Limited in 2018.

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