Health department coy on further study of Tonawanda’s high cancer rates

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

After several back-and-forth emails and a refusal to return phone calls, it appears the state Health Department won’t commit to conducting further studies to determine why so many people living near Tonawanda’s industrial corridor have cancer.

The Health Department thus far will only commit to a public forum on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. in the Sheridan Parkside Community Center. At this meeting, health officials will provide an overview of its health review and answer questions. Here is the Investigative Post story about the review.

The department took almost four years to conduct its review, prompted by a 2009 air monitoring study that the state Department of Environmental Council did for the Town of Tonawanda. The Health Department took so long that some residents forgot it was still conducting a review.

But now that it’s publicly known that there are high rates of some types of cancer in Tonawanda and some of those cancers are associated with benzene and formaldehyde—two chemicals that the DEC found in the industrial corridor above recommended levels—whose responsibility is it to gather the additional information needed to determine cause and effect?

You would think Health Department officials, after seeing the results, would want to better pinpoint the cause of these high cancer rates, right?

Is it more about smoking? Or where a person works? Or related to the pollution emitted by industries near the neighborhoods of victims?

Once that is determined, maybe health department officials could discuss the results and make recommendations because they woudl then have more definitive information.

The number of cancer cases is a bit staggering.

There are 1,138 cases of men and 1,097 cases of women having some type of cancer in the study area of about 18,500 people. Those rates are 10 percent higher than the rest of New York state, excluding New York City.

Of those cases, 199 men and 179 women have lung cancer. There are 96 cases of bladder cancer in men and another 52 in women. Another 78 women have cancer of the uterus.

All of these cases are statistically significant, according to the Health Department’s review. For more detail on the data, read this post on Investigative Post’s GreenPost blog. 

It’s safe to say by reading the comments posted on Facebook and Twitter that the results have alarmed residents who live in Tonawanda, across the city line in Riverside and across the Niagara River in Grand Island.

Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the Health Department, did not return telephone calls I made to him Tuesday. Instead, he provided a statement the following day:

Based on community input, the State Department of Health sought to find out if people living in Tonawanda and the surrounding areas in Erie County had an increased risk of cancer compared to people living elsewhere in New York State.

Health Department researchers caution that the findings of cancer and birth outcome studies need to be interpreted carefully. They warned that one study alone cannot prove a relationship between an exposure and a disease; each individual has different risk factors such as medical history, lifestyle, occupational exposures and the length of time they resided at the study location.

While the study cannot prove a direct cause and effect relationship between exposure and disease, it provides a starting point for additional discussion and recommendations.

I then responded by email and called Mr. Hammond, asking:

Hi Jeffrey,

Will the health department be committing to conduct additional reviews or studies that would help prove a relationship between exposure and disease?

About 45 minutes later, Mr. Hammond emailed me back, saying:

Daniel,

As our statement states: It provides a starting point for additional discussion and recommendations.

-Jeffrey

Well, that didn’t really answer my question, so I called Hammond again and also sent him the following email:

Jeffrey

Given what you said in the statement, I am writing a story today stating the health department won’t commit to any further review or study to determine cause and effect of the higher cancer rates in Tonawanda.

Your statement infers that health officials will only continue talking about the information and take recommendations, without saying who can make recommendations.

If you disagree, then I need to hear from you by the end of business today.

Thank you

As of close of business, the Health Department declined to respond.