By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — The state Department of Health painted a frightening picture Tuesday of elevated cancer rates among residents in neighborhoods near the town’s industrial corridor.
“We did find elevations — statistically significant elevations — in total cancers, some specific cancers, like lung and bladder, as well as preterm births and heart defects,” James Bowers, of the DOH, said during his presentation Wednesday at the Sheridan Parkside Community Center.
The DOH worked with the DEC to identify neighborhoods that were more likely to have high or moderate effects from benzene exposure, and examined health outcomes in four different subsections identified as Brookside-Terrace, Sheridan Park, Riverside and Grand Island.
Bowers said the DOH investigation found elevated levels of lung cancer and bladder cancer in both males and females, esophageal cancer in males and uterine cancer in females, as well as oral-cavity/pharynx cancer in males and leukemia among women.
The DOH also found evidence of elevated preterm births and heart defects in newborns, but evidence of elevated major birth defects was, fortunately, not discovered.
Bowers cautioned the 175 people in attendance that DOH is not able to prove that environmental effects caused the illnesses, but most attendees still said they lay the blame squarely on companies like Tonawanda Coke.
Air monitoring around the foundry has uncovered high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.
But Bowers cautioned it’s only one cause — and not the most likely, statistically speaking.
“Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer,” he said. “And we don’t have any of that data, about lifestyle, diet, exercise ... lung and bladder cancer can be caused by industrial emissions, but it’s hard to say one way or another what actually caused the outcomes.”
The study examines rates between 1990 and 2009, and the rates were then compared to analyses of statewide data and Erie and Niagara county rates.
About 175 people attended the meeting, many of whom submitted questions on the study via index cards, which Bowers then read and answered following his presentation.
Questions ranged from how the DOH is planning to take care of the sick people to whether Bowers himself would live in the town after completing the study.
“I get that answer at every meeting I attend,” he said. “And there’s no definite yes or no answer.”
Many of attendees’ questions fell out of the realm of his duties, but Bowers told residents to let their doctors know about their situation if they are concerned about health problems.
When one attendee asked about environmental clean up, he spoke to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s work to reduce benzene levels in the air by 86 percent. In response, another attendee called out “finally!”
Bowers’ plan to read questions off the index cards quickly disintegrated at one point, and attendees began standing up to voice and shout their opinions.
“There are very few smiles in the audience,” Mark H. Haacker, a resident who is a three-time survivor of cancer, said. “We are all victims ... we are outraged. I speak for myself, but also for the community.”
There were many other others in the audience who had lived out the study’s findings, suffering from cancer and other illnesses.
“My husband and I moved into Sheridan Parkside ... and then moved about 1/4 mile away,” said Marie Kresge, who attended the meeting with her husband, Donald. “We’ve both had cancer. ... I remember cleaning off the windowsills, and it wasn’t normal dust you could just dust — it was film. ... All of this really concerns us.”
The public comment period on the study is open until March 31. Residents are invited to provide feedback about the study by contacting the DOH through e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone to James Bowers, M.P.H. at (518) 402-7950 or by mail to: Tonawanda Comments, NYS DOH BEOE, Empire State Plaza, Corning Tower, Room 1203, Albany, NY 12237.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150