Jump to content

Delaware confirms cancer cluster


Recommended Posts

Delaware confirms cancer cluster

Study finds higher rate near Indian River power plant


The News Journal

For years, residents in the small towns around the Indian River power plant have noticed friends and relatives falling sick in greater numbers than they thought normal.

Years after citizen activists first asked the state for data to establish a pattern, the Division of Public Health has finally confirmed what they suspected: There's a cluster of cancer cases near the coal burning plant -- the state's worst polluter.

According to the state's own study, the rate of cancer cases in the area is 17 percent higher than the national average.

But the Division of Public Health says it is unlikely to study the matter further, citing a lack of resources and the historical difficulty of pinning down an environmental cause.

Now resident activists are pushing a state panel to fund further studies to determine whether there is a link with the plant.

"We are saying, you need to spend the money and do it right," said Pat Gearity, spokeswoman for Citizens for Clean Power. Her group has worked to document higher-than-normal health problems in the area.

Gearity said the responsibility for investigating whether there is a link between the plants and the high rate of cancer lies with the state, not private citizens.

NRG Energy Inc.'s Indian River complex, located in Millsboro, ranks as the state's top source of toxic and smog-forming pollution. The state last year passed pollution control rules that would reduce emissions from the Indian River plant. But NRG has said it won't be able to meet state goals for reducing those emissions by 2009.

Duane Lynch, 72, said she lives with the memory of friends and loved ones who have died over the years of cancer at young ages. She recalled one couple whose cars mysteriously chipped paint, and clothes on the clothesline collected debris. The man died of liver cancer in his early 40s about 25 years ago; and his wife died around that same time of an infection.

"I think that power plant has a lot to do with their deaths," Lynch said. "I'd like to have more research done, knowing that the cancer is so much greater in my area."

Further conclusions unlikely

The state study was released to Lt. Gov. John Carney on July 17, who had requested the report; he then passed it along to the citizen activists who had come to him for help. It shows an incidence of 553.9 cancer cases per 100,000 residents of a six ZIP code area around Indian River between 2000 and 2004. That's higher than the Delaware rate of 501.3 cases per 100,000, and the U.S. rate of 473.6.

That amounts to a cancer cluster, the division determined. Public health officials adjusted the figures for age to compensate for the larger number of retirees in the area. The highest incidence of cancer was lung cancer, which accounted for 19.5 percent of the cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a cancer cluster as a greater-than-expected incidence of the disease within a geographic area. The Division of Public Health gets complaints about alleged cancer clusters "every couple of months," said Paul Silverman, the division's associate deputy director. But the division never found a definitive link with an environmental contaminant for any of the cases, he said.

The CDC has launched scores of cancer cluster investigations over the years, and has helped focus public attention on certain cases, like the incidence of childhood leukemia amid corporate contamination of the groundwater in Woburn, Mass., in the 1970s. That case was settled.

The CDC reported that few cases have resulted in definitive links with environmental causes. That's the reason Delaware public health officials say they're reluctant to commit more resources toward an investigation.

"Are we likely to reach any further conclusions by outlaying the cost and devoting the time to studying these further?" Silverman said, noting that studying carcinogens in the air would be expensive. "There's a balance between whether there's something to be gained versus the resources necessary to go that next step."

NRG's spokeswoman, Lori Neuman, said in an e-mail that the company "is fully committed to reducing emissions from our Indian River plant and our entire fleet. We are supportive of the Department of Health's effort to pinpoint particular causes of health issues for the citizens of Delaware in an effort to identify at-risk populations and to develop programs and initiatives that can mitigate or eliminate the risk factors they face."

Coal-burning power plants in Delaware release large amounts of toxic hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, ammonia and hydrogen fluoride, along with lead, nickel and mercury compounds and other chemicals that may cause cancer or linger in human tissues or the environment, according to the federally mandated "Toxic Release Inventory" report.

Kim Furtado, a member of Citizens for Clean Power, is a naturopathic physician based in Rehoboth Beach. She tested the urine of some of her patients from Dagsboro and Millsboro, and said she found high levels of toxins like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and cesium.

Furtado, a Millsboro resident, said the state should be interviewing cancer victims and their survivors, and performing tests to find the levels of contaminants in their urine and blood.

In 2002, she asked the Division of Public Health for cancer data. She argued her findings showed a higher incidence of cancer in the area. But it wasn't until earlier this year, when the Lewes-based Citizens for Clean Power and the grassroots anti-pollution group Citizens for a Better Sussex kept pushing, that the division undertook a study. The two groups got the attention of Carney, who formally requested the study.

"It's one thing to say we can't get it," Furtado said, referring to seeking further information about the cause of the cancers. "But don't refuse to do the work and say we can't get it."

At the division's suggestion, citizen advocates on Aug. 13 are taking their case to the environmental committee of the Delaware Cancer Consortium in hopes it will perform a more detailed study.

No clues to cluster's origin

In the report, the division said it's not sure whether the higher incidence of lung cancer could have been caused by tobacco use, the culprit in 85 percent of all lung cancers nationwide. The cancers may have also been caused by people having moved into the area from a different environment, the report argued.

The cases could also be an example of random variation, Silverman said. The six areas examined in the report were Dagsboro, Frankford, Georgetown, Millsboro, Ocean View and Selbyville.

The high percentage of lung cancer cases around Indian River occurred primarily in the older population in which one might expect to find lung cancer cases, Silverman said.

The 61-70 age group was the largest group of lung cancer patients in the area, with 36.6 percent of all cancer cases, compared to 32.3 statewide.

The report said the absence of unusual cancers or cancers striking young people "provides no clues as to the origin of this cluster and suggests that further investigation is unlikely to be fruitful."

The report also said new state rules intended to reduce emissions "are a major step forward in providing a clean environment," and would be enhanced by putting more air quality monitors in the area.

The state study found that the Indian River area and the state as a whole had similar breakdowns of most types of cancer between 1995 and 2004. In 22 of the 24 categories of cancer, the differences were less than 1 percent. For instance, 11.3 percent of Indian River cancer patients had colorectal cancer, compared with 11.2 for the state as a whole.

But the biggest exception by far was lung cancer, which affected 19.5 percent of cancer patients in the Indian River area, compared with 15 percent of the state as a whole.

The other was breast cancer, which had a 2.7 percent lower incidence among cancer patients in the area than the state's population at large.

In the Indian River area, most of the cancer patients were in the 61-70 age group; in the state as a whole, most cancers were found in residents ages 71-80. There did not appear to be a comparatively high rate of cancer among young people around Indian River.

No one from the Delaware Cancer Consortium's environment committee was willing to be interviewed for this article. One member, John Hughes, the state's environmental secretary, said through a spokeswoman that he had not yet read the report.

Carney, a member of the consortium's advisory council, said he didn't have an opinion on whether the consortium should proceed with a more in-depth study. He said it might suffice to take actions "that would address whatever potential problems might exist," like reducing emissions at the plant and funding smoking cessation programs.

Residents left to wonder

Lynch noted that her first husband died of cancer of the thymus gland in 1966 at the age of 33. Her second husband, who was a heavy smoker but has since quit, has been treated for lung cancer. She is a survivor of breast cancer. "It's strange three people lived in this house all had cancer," she said.

Lynch, a patient of Furtado, said elevated levels of metals like aluminum have been found in her blood. She wonders whether that contributed to her osteoporosis.

"I still think it needs to be investigated more," Lynch said.

Contact Aaron Nathans at 324-2786 or anathans@delawareonline.com.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Restore formatting

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.