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Cancer Map Legislation in Limbo

July 30, 2008

By Cathleen F. Crowley, Albany Times Union, N.Y.

Jul. 30–ALBANY — A proposed law that would let New Yorkers zoom to neighborhood-level data on cancer maps has lost direction.

The bill passed both the state Assembly and the Senate, but negotiations over the bill’s requirements have broken off.

The bill would direct the state to publish the number of cancer cases at census block-level detail, as opposed to the current county-level data. It also requires the state to create a map overlay of industrial sites to help identify polluters that may, or may not, contribute to cancer clusters.

“It will provoke more scientific inquiry and investigation,” said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Westchester, who sponsored the bill. “There’s no reason on God’s earth to keep this secret.”

Much of the information about individual cancer cases is already collected by the New York State Cancer Registry, but the registry does not publish the neighborhood-level information. The registry’s Web site discloses five-year cancer rates by county, though some of the more common cancers are reported by zip code.

“The theory always was that the state knows where there are cancer clusters but hasn’t been telling anybody,” Brodsky said. “It’s important to get the information out without overselling it.”

Concerns about the bill include privacy issues, reliability of the data, and fears that the public will misinterpret the information.

It takes a trained statistician to find clusters that are not random, according to Dave Momrow, senior vice president of cancer control at the American Cancer Society. A handful of marbles dipped in paint and thrown against a wall will yield clusters of dots.

“It may not necessarily be due to the environment,” Momrow said.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, also worries about reaction.

“Three people on the same street develop the same cancer and people tend to get excited by it,” Carpenter said. “But it’s unwise to draw conclusions from just a few cases of cancer. I’m not sure the public in general would know how to use the data or would use it in a reasonable fashion.”

Negotiations among Brodsky; Sen. Tom Libous, R-Binghamton, the bill’s Senate sponsor; and officials from the state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation broke off last week, Brodsky said. He said he is willing to talk, but will send the bill to the governor if negotiations do not resume.

The Health Department, DEC and the governor’s office all declined to comment Wednesday on pending legislation.

Carpenter and Momrow both said they support cancer mapping. Carpenter, especially, would like more access for researchers.

“I have been told there is no way I can get access to the (full) cancer registry data,” said Carpenter, who studies the influence of environment on disease. “In my judgment, they don’t use it anywhere near to the power that that information has.”

Cathleen F. Crowley can be reached at 454-5348, or by e-mail at ccrowley@timesunion.com.

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