September 30, 2008

Cancer Rates Still a Concern

By Nancy A. Fischer

Stephanie Smith was hoping for answers Monday night at the public meeting hosted by the state Department of Health to talk about higher-than-expected cancer rates in areas around the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works.

Smith, of Youngstown, grew up and lived in Ransomville for 35 years, and is among those in the towns of Lewiston and Porter concerned about whether hazardous waste buried at the site might help explain why five out of nine members of her family -- including herself -- have cancer. Why she has seen neighbors all around her with cancer. Why she knows about a baby born without a liver.

Smith and some of the 75 others who came to the meeting were looking for something "more than statistics, much more direct, much more serious."

Many went away disappointed.

The word they got from health officials is that while some cancer rates are higher than normal, those rates can be explained by any number of causes.

Cancer is so common that we all have pretty good odds of having some type of cancer, said Dr. Martin C. Mahoney of the Department of Cancer Prevention and Population Science at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

"Fifty percent of men and one in three women have a chance of getting some type of cancer," Mahoney said.

"But the fact that [in this study] we don't have a correlation and we can't find a link is a good thing," said Dr. Gregory Young, medical director for the Western Regional Health Department office.

Young told The Buffalo News outside the meeting that in 2002, when numbers showed a "blip" of higher-than-expected cancer rates, especially in children at the Lewiston-Porter school campus, the Health Department was asked to do a study by former U.S. Rep. John J. LaFalce and then-Lew-Port School Superintendent Walter Polka.

Young said he would "feel safe" sending a child to Lewiston- Porter schools.

During the meeting, Aura Weinstein, director of the Health Department's Cancer Surveillance Program, said health workers studied three areas near the former ordnance works, where radioactive waste is stored from the Manhattan Project, and the Chemical Waste Management landfill.

Weinstein said they found a higher incidence of prostate cancer in men, but further study found that medical factors such as early screening and men living longer may have contributed to the numbers.

"We cannot prove cause and effect," she said. "Even one type of cancer can have many different causes. We really don't know if any people have been exposed to a substance."

A few people said they could have just read the statistics on the Internet, and wanted more from the presentation.

"I didn't get too much from this meeting," said Jean Leckband, of Dutton Drive in Lewiston. "I have a 12-year-old at Lewiston-Porter and I worry about these things. I want you to get to the root of the problem and you are just talking about the leaves of the tree."

There has been concern for years in the two towns about the effect radiation and chemicals from weapons development during World War II might have on incidents of cancer among the local population.

The Health Department said the study evaluated cancer incidents among people of all ages in each study area who were diagnosed with cancer from 1991-2000 to see if the number of cases arising were higher than should be expected.

Summarizing the findings, state officials said researchers found no unusual cancer patterns in the area of study. The only exception was a high number of prostate cancers in the LOOW area and the area near the Lewiston-Porter campus.

The study found statistically high numbers of several other cancers in the Lewiston-Porter campus area. That facet of the study was done because of concerns over children attending schools at Lew- Port. But those results also appeared to be inconclusive.

The study states, "The greater-than-expected number of women with breast and bladder cancer [there] are not likely to be due to exposures received while the women were attending schools on campus because most of the cases were found in older women who went to school before the campus was built."

The report said there also was an excess in cancers in children ages 10-14 living in this area.

"These children could have attended schools on the Lewiston- Porter campus, although interviews showed that not all of them had," state health officials said.

The study also found unusual numbers of testicular cancers in young men, and gonadal and germ cell tumors in children. However, health officials said, "Conclusions cannot be drawn about these high numbers and a relationship to exposures to any contaminants from the site because there is insufficient information about where these individuals went to school, or other possible risk factors they may have had."

In a question-and-answer session, Weinstein admitted that this was a self-contained study and told the audience, "No one study can be the final answer."

She said the Health Department has no plans for any follow-up studies.

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Originally published by NEWS NIAGARA BUREAU.

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