Toxic Tide: No Place to Hide
Part 3: What we found
We found a great deal of general information on cancer incidence and carcinogens, so much in fact that we have not been able to read and digest it all for this report. We found some information specific to Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, but not nearly as much as we had hoped for. The lack of more geographically specific information in the aggregate cancer information collected by the government severely limits the ability of the public to identify cancer clusters in our region.
1. Cancer incidence
Cancer incidence in the US
- Cancer incidence in the US is high. One in three women and one in two men will get cancer in their lifetimes. One in four will die of it. "Since 1990, there have been approximately 5 million cancer deaths [in the US]" (American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts & Figures - 1998).
- According to Sandra Steingraber, the incidence of all types of
cancer combined rose 49.3 percent between 1950 and 1991.
Steingraber says about 40 percent of people living in the US (38.3
percent of women and 48.2 percent of men) will contract cancer
sometime in our lifespans. Cancer is the leading cause of death
among US Americans aged thirty-five to sixty-four (Steingraber, p.
40). Cancer is the second leading cause of death among children
(after accidents) (Rachel's Environmental Health Weekly #599).
- Some forms of cancer are receding, but others are increasing.
Cancers of the lung, breast, prostate, colon and rectum have all
become more frequent. Leukemia and brain cancer are increasing
- Some people tend to dismiss statements about increased cancer incidence by attributing it to smoking. About 30% of cancer deaths in the US are caused by smoking. If lung cancer is excluded, writes Steingraber, overall cancer incidence rose 35 percent (1950-1991). Dr. Samuel Epstein, MD states that 75 percent of increased cancer incidence since 1950 occurred in sites other than the lung (The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 2, March/April 1998, p.72).
- There is widespread belief that cancer incidence is increasing
because people live longer. This is the trade-off, we are told, for
longer life expectancy. If this were the case, only old people
would get cancer. Epstein points out, however, that cancer
incidence rates are age-adjusted ('age-adjustment' is a statistical
technique which removes the effects of age distribution and allows
researchers to focus on the risk factors). Furthermore, National
Cancer Institute figures show that childhood cancers increased by
21.3 percent in US whites between 1950 and 1988 (cited in The Ecologist, p.53).
- According to Rachel's Environmental & Health Weekly #599, cancers diagnosed in children younger than 15 are increasing at about 1% per year in the U.S. Two kinds of childhood cancers account for 50% of all cases: leukemias (cancers of the blood-forming organs) and brain cancers. Leukemias seem particularly likely to strike children younger than age two, and brain tumors occur most often in children younger than age six.
- Breast cancer rates have been increasing at the rate of 1% per
year since about 1950. Increased incidences of 3-4% in 1982-1987
are attributed to increased detection due to the introduction of
widespread mammography screening. By 1991, the "mammography effect" had passed, and the rate of increase dropped back to its historical rate of increase of 1% per year. (Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #575).
Cancer incidence in St. Lawrence and Jefferson Counties
- In St. Lawrence County, average annual cancer incidence among women for all types of cancer was 315.1 in 1989-1993 and 330.5 in 1990-1994, lower than the state average. In Jefferson County, the figures are 345.6 and 356.0 respectively, higher than the state average. Statewide the figures are 342.1 and 343.6 respectively.
- St. Lawrence County has higher than state average incidence in women of cancers of the esophagus, colorectal, colon, liver, lung
and bronchus, bladder, brain and nervous system, as well as higher
than average incidence of Non-Hodgkin's lymphomas and leukemias
(Cancer Incidence and Mortality in New York State 1990-1994).
- Jefferson County has higher than state average incidence in women of cancers of the esophagus, colorectal, colon, larynx, lung and brochus, bladder, kidney, brain and other nervous system, as well as higher than average rates of Hodgkin's disease, Non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, multiple myeloma, and leukemias. (Cancer Incidence and Mortality in New York State 1990-1994).
- Twenty-two percent of all deaths in Jefferson County in 1995 were cancer deaths (1995 Profile p.136). Of 192 cancer deaths (yearly average for 1991-1993), 6 were in the 0-44 age group, 26 were in the 45-59 age group, and 160 were in the 60+ group (Northern New York Rural Health Care Alliance Vital Statistics Analysis, p.16).
- According to information from the NY State Department of Health, no epidemiological studies have been completed in St. Lawrence or Jefferson Counties. Two studies are underway, one at Akwesasne, and the other a drinking water study for the municipalities of Ogdensburg, Massena and Morristown.
- One study carried out in St. Lawrence County, "Cancer Incidence in Zip Code Areas 13614, 13623, 13633, 13646, 13654, and 13664 dated February 1990, looked at cancer incidence from 1976-1987. It concluded that diagnosed cancer in women was similar to expected levels. In men, there was a statistically significant excess of lung and prostate cancers. This study was not an epidemiological study and does not seek to ascribe the increased incidence in these towns and villages to any particular cause. The study makes the general statement that "[t]he number of people with cancer is increasing in most communities because more people are living to older ages, where cancer is more common," but this does not explain the higher than expected incidence in the area studied.
2. The environmental connection
General findings on cancer and carcinogens
We found ample evidence that environmental pollution causes cancer. The World Health Organization stated in 1964 that 80% of cancers are caused by human-produced carcinogens. According to the textbook, Human Genetics: A Modern Synthesis, cited in Steingraber (p. 261), "As much as 90 percent of all forms of cancer is attributable to specific environmental factors." Furthermore, the textbook states: "Because exposure to these environmental factors can, in principle, be controlled, most cancers could be prevented. ... Reducing or eliminating exposures to environmental carcinogens would dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer in the United States."
Cancer occurs when a cell's genetic material, its DNA, is damaged repeatedly. Cancer is a multi-step process, requiring perhaps 5 or 6 or more separate attacks on a cell before cancer develops. Peter Montague, writing in Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #575, compares cancer "to a rope hanging from a tree branch. If the rope is cut, then you have a cancer. You can think of carcinogens as bullets being fired at the rope. Most bullets miss the rope completely. A few hit the rope and damage it. As time passes and more and more carcinogens are fired at the rope, eventually the rope may be cut and cancer develops."
Following are some of the known and suspected bullets--the carcinogens found in our environment:
Organochlorine pesticides including HCHs, DDT, DDE, dieldrin,
chlordane, heptachlor, heptachlor epoxide, toxaphene and mirex
Chlorinated Dioxins and Furans including 2,3,7,8-TCDD
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) including benzene,
trichloroethylene and chloroform
Metals including lead, cadmium, nickel and mercury
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Ionizing radiation from nuclear facilities and X-rays,
Non-ionizing radiation from electro-magnetic fields created by power lines may increase leukemia in children.
Ultra-violet radiation causes skin cancer, which is increasing
due to thinning of the ozone layer caused by releases of CFCs
and other ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere.
Certain drugs including supplemental estrogens, steroids and
Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) found in the milk of
dairy cows injected with genetically-engineered bovine growth
Carcinogens enter our bodies through the air, food, soil and water. They are found in tobacco smoke, petroleum products, pesticides, plastics, paints, paint removers, solvents, cleaners, foods and food packaging (especially plastics), drugs, chlorinated water,
waste contaminated water, smoke and ash from barrel burning and
incinerators, coal smoke, caulking compounds, lubricants, sealants,
pulp and paper mill effluents, chlorinated wood preservatives, some
building materials, ... the list goes on.
In preparing this work, we collected a lot of information about
carcinogens and the pathways through which these "bullets" enter
our bodies. We have not, however, managed to organize this
information into a concise, useful information sheet. Our aim was
to make the links between carcinogens on the one hand, and the
specific products and places they are found on the other. This task
turned out to be more complicated and time consuming than we had expected.
While such a chart showing the links between known carcinogens and their pathways will be useful, it will by no means tell us everything we need to know. There are about 75,000 different chemicals now in use and only 1200 to 1500 of these have been tested for carcinogenicity. No one knows how many of the 75,000 contribute to cancer in humans but a recent estimate concluded that we should expect 5% to 10% of these (3750 to 7500 different chemicals) to be carcinogenic in humans. Currently, the US government regulates fewer than 200 chemicals on the basis of their carcinogenicity. Roughly 2000 new, untested chemicals are brought into commercial use each year (Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #573).
Findings specific to St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties
- Water samples taken from Black Lake near Edwardsville and water samples taken from the Oswegatchie River as it conjoins with the St. Lawrence River at Ogdensburg indicate a lead deposit reading that is closer to the contaminate level than water samples taken from other bodies of water in this area. These two samples suggest a further need to analyze for other contaminates that could be carcinogens. The results of testing for atrazine are not yet in.
- Industrial emission. There is too much data in the material we received from town historians and the Toxic Release Inventory to present here. This information will be mapped and included in our final report.
- Popular herbicides sold in the area are Roundup, Agway's Total Weed Killer, and Weed-B-Gon spray. Insecticides are Liquid Sevin, Sevin Dust, Hot Shot, Raid, diazinon and non-toxic Citronella
candles. Pesticides are Havoc bait pellets, and D-Con. We were not
able to ascertain quantities of these pesticides sold in the county
or the level and type of carcinogens they contain.
- Burn barrels are a significant source of carcinogens in the two
county area, releasing poisons directly into the air and into the
ash. Waste fire ash contains levels of dioxins, furans and PCBs
which exceed the parts per trillion body burdens associated with
human health impacts by a factor of one thousand. Open burning is
especially hazardous in dairy farming areas, where toxins are
ingested by cattle and passed on to humans in dairy products and
meat. Very rough calculation of carcinogens from the estimated
10,000 burn barrels in St. Lawrence County, based on formulas
developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, shows that open burning of non-recycled waste in the county releases 154
pounds/year of highly toxic carcinogens into the air.
- Health advisories for sportfish and game indicate levels of PCBs, mirex, and dioxin in fish caught in the St. Lawrence River (whole river). Warnings are also issued for fish caught in the mouth of the Grasse River and the Massena Power Canal (PCBs), in Carry Falls Reservoir (mercury) and Cranberry Lake (mercury).
3. What some other communities and organizations are doing
Following is a very brief sampling of some of the cases we came across that yielded useful information:
- Woburn, Massachusetts is apparently a classic case, where
residents suspected a higher than "normal" incidence of cancer and
other health problems in children, had their appeals to health
officials rejected, and finally undertook their own health survey
with the support of academics. The survey showed a significant
excess of disease, and health officials were finally moved to
undertake a study of water sources, which showed serious well-water contamination and traced it to two large companies operating in Woburn. Throughout, there was collusion of government, industry and apparently even the judiciary against the people of Woburn who were concerned about their children's health.
- The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), working in San Diego,
California, and Tijuana, Mexico since 1980, is a citizens coalition
that believes abandoning toxics is the only way to solve
environmental health problems. The EHC has just published Toxic Turnaround, a step-by-step guide for local government officials (municipal or county), showing how to reduce their reliance on toxic materials. "Gradually," says EHC's executive director, Diane Takvorian, "it became apparent to us that toxics cause health and safety problems in every situation where they are used, and that better law enforcement and control strategies are not the whole answer. We need farther-reaching solutions that reduce society's dependence on toxic chemicals. Because toxic materials generate pollution and hazards at every stage of their life-cycle--
manufacturing, transportation, incorporation into a product,
use of the product and final disposal--we have come to believe
that the best solution to the problem of toxic pollution is
preventing the pollution in the first place" (cited in Rachel's
Environment & Health Weekly #602). EHC has found that reducing toxics also reduces costs for materials, worker health, and
- The Women's Network on Health & the Environment, based in Toronto, Canada has produced a film, Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer, and a resource guide, Taking Action for a Healthy Future. The film takes the positive view that breast cancer incidence can be drastically reduced if human-made carcinogens are eliminated from the environment. The Handbook is provides background materials, information on primary prevention of cancer, and action suggestions, with ample links to organizations and communities dealing with the issue.
- The International Institute of Concern for Public Health in
Toronto, Canada has produced a small booklet, Health 2000, A Guide for the Community Seeking to Undertake a Health Survey, that addresses the question of whether community health studies are necessary, and then provides a simple guide on how to undertake a health survey. The booklet explains the problems with the traditional approach to epidemiological studies and concludes that current environmental health problems cannot possibly be addressed through the expensive, time-consuming and limited approach of traditional epidemiology. Community health surveys do not eliminate the need for traditional epidemiology, but utilize knowledge from it to arrive at local solutions.
- The League of Women Voters of Albany County, New York published a small booklet, Household Hazards, A Guide to Detoxifying Your Home in 1988. This little book provides basic, simple information about alternatives to toxic chemicals in homes and gardens.
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