Pinpointing high cancer rates in Tonawanda

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

The state Health Department’s review of cancer rates and birth defects for the Town of Tonawanda that were released Tuesday can be a bit confusing because the author used a complicated method to come up with the elevation rates.

I reported on the review Tuesday and WGRZ aired a version of the story during its 11 p.m. newscast. You can read and view the story here.

Basically what the health department found was elevated cancer rates in neighborhoods surrounding the industrial corridor. The review does not make any cause-and-effect conclusions. In other words, it doesn’t place any blame on any particular plant or activity because there are numerous factors that can cause cancer and birth defects.

But the review could set the stage for more in-depth study that looks at the data on a case-by-case basis to rule out some of those factors, such as whether cancer victims smoke or work in unhealthy work environments. Health Department officials have not said whether it plans to conduct any additional reviews or studies based on the results of their report, but they will conduct a public meeting Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Sheridan Parkside Community Center.

I decided to pull some of the charts and provide the elevation rates that the health department considered to be “statistically significant.”

The first number is for observed cases and the second number is what the health department would have expected to find. That data is then run through an equation to get the elevation rates for each category.

Table 2b is rates for low birth weight, premature births and growth restriction for the entire study area compared to New York State (excluding NYC )for 1990-2009. Two outcomes had statistically significant elevations:

• Premature births—The report found 331 cases rather than the expected 291 cases, which represents a 14 percent elevation rate.
• Moderately premature births —281 cases rather than the expected 241, a 17 percent elevation rate.

When this data was compared to Erie and Niagara counties, there weren’t any statistically significant elevations.

Table 2c is for low birth weight, premature births and growth restriction for the four neighborhoods compared to the state, minus New York City NYS for 1990-2009. All statistically significant elevations were in Sheridan Park:

• Low birth weight—99 cases rather than the expected 80, a 24 percent elevation.
• Moderately low birth rate—83 cases rather than the expected 65, a 28 percent elevation.
• Premature birth—127 cases rather than the expected 99, a 23 percent elevation rate.
• Moderately premature — 109 cases rather than the expected 82, a 27 percent elevation.

When this data was compared to Erie and Niagara counties, there weren’t any statistically significant elevations.

Table 3a is for birth defects in the entire study area compared to NYS (excluding NYC) for 1990-2008. There were three statistically significant elevations:

• Total reportable birth defects—246 cases rather than the expected 194, a 30 percent elevation.
• Surveillance birth defects—132 cases rather than the expected 107 cases, a 22 percent elevation.
• Total cardiac defects—70 cases rather than the expected 43.9, a 66 percent elevation.

When compared to Erie and Niagara counties, there weren’t any statistically significant elevations. However, the review also states that past reviews of statewide birth defects have shown higher rates in Western New York.

Table 4b is cancer incidence for the moderate impact area, including the four neighborhoods, compared to NYS (excluding NYC) for 1990-2008:

For men:

• Total cancers: 1,138 cases rather than the expected 1,031, a 10 percent elevation.
• Esophagus cancer—30 cases rather than the expected 16, a 92 percent elevation rate.
• Lung/bronchus cancer—199 cases rather than the expected 160, a 24 percent elevation.
• Bladder cancer—96 cases rather than the expected 77,  a 24 percent elevation.

When compared to Erie and Niagara counties, total cancers were elevated 8 percent and esophageal cancer was elevated 66 percent.

For women:

• Total cancers—1,097 cases rather than the expected 993, a 10 percent elevation.
• Lung/bronchus—178 cases rather than the expected 138, a 29 percent elevation.
• Uterus cancer—78 cases rather than the expected 62, a 26 percent elevation.
• Bladder cancer—52 cases rather than the expected 29 cases, 81 percent elevation.

When compared to Erie and Niagara counties, total cancers were elevated 12 percent; lung/bronchus cancer by 24 percent; uterus cancer by 28 percent; and bladder cancer by 74 percent.

Table 4d is cancer incidence among women for the four neighborhoods compared to NYS (excluding NYC) for 1990-2008:

Brookside Terrace

• Bladder cancer — 18 cases rather than the expected 7.7, a 134 percent elevation.

Sheridan Park

• Total cancer—there were 332 cases rather than the expected 271 cases, a 22 percent elevation.
• Lung/bronchus—there were 55 cases rather than the expected 38 cases, a 46 percent elevation.
• Bladder cancer—there were 19 cases rather than the expected 7.9 cases, an 140 percent elevation.
• Leukemias—there were 13 cases rather than the expected 6.7 cases, a 93 percent elevation.

Riverside

• Lung/bronchus—there were 52 cases rather than the expected 35 cases, a 49 percent elevation.

Grand Island

• Uterus cancer—there were 23 cases rather than the expected 14 cases, a 64 percent elevation.

For men:

Sheridan Park

• Total cancers: there were 316 cases rather than the expected 269 cases, a 17 percent elevation.
• Lung/bronchus—there were 62 cases rather than the expected 42 cases, a 49 percent elevation.
• Bladder cancer—there were 30 cases rather than the expected 20 cases, a 48 percent elevation.

Grand Island

• Esophagus cancer—there were 10 cases rather than the expected 3.7 cases, a 172 percent elevation