Their voices rising in frustration, residents talked about living and working amid the industrial pollution in the Town of Tonawanda as they challenged a state study that establishes no connection between it and their health problems.
Representatives of the state Health Department appeared Tuesday night before a large crowd in the Sheridan Parkside Community Center to explain the results of a recently released health data review that found elevated levels of certain cancers and birth defects among people who live in or near the town’s industrial corridor.
“The study we did cannot show cause and effect between anything in the environment that’s going on and these health outcomes,” research scientist James Bowers said repeatedly, in a variety of ways.
Birth certificates, the congenital malformations registry and the cancer registry were the sources for a data review covering 1990 to 2009. It compared the levels of adverse birth outcomes and cancer cases for residents of a Tonawanda study area to residents of Erie and Niagara counties, and elsewhere in the state – excluding the five boroughs of New York City.
Researchers had no information about the lifestyles or medical histories of individual residents.
A driving force behind the review was an air quality study by the state Department of Environmental Conservation that showed concentrations of benzene and formaldehyde were much higher in the Tonawanda area than others with industrial and urban monitoring data – excluding New York City.
Lung, bladder and total cancers were elevated among both genders, while esophageal cancer was elevated among males and uterine cancer among females.
Two other types of cancer were elevated: oral cavity/pharynx cancer among males living in the industrial corridor – a sparsely populated area of approximately 250 people off River Road – and leukemia among females in the Sheridan Parkside area.
Analyses of birth outcomes showed pre-term births and total heart defects were elevated.
When it comes to lung and bladder cancers, smoking is the most important risk factor, Bowers said, although those cancers also are related to some industrial emissions.
“It’s hard for us to say one way or the other which plays the biggest role here,” Bowers said.
Though the time following Bowers’ presentation was meant for questions and answers, some people offered testimonials about their experiences.
A man, who identified himself as Pete, said he worked as a trucker in the area for 27 years.
“I was in every place on that map with a dot,” he said, referring to map indicating industries within the study area.
The trucker said he was diagnosed with colon, bladder and prostate cancer over the years.
“Obviously something’s going on in this area,” he said. “I feel sorry for the people who have to live here.”
Mark H. Haacker, a lifelong resident of the area, said he’s a three-time cancer survivor.
“This goes back to pre-World War II,” Haacker said, adding that the study was based on air quality – not on what was dumped into area waterways.
“We’re all victims,” Haacker continued, saying no one chose who their parents were or where they were born. He blames the state and federal governments for allowing the pollution to occur.
“I will fight to my dying breath that there’s some compensation for the victims ... who have no escape,” Haacker said.