The state health department said Tuesday it has been getting so much traffic to its online cancer-environmental facilities map unveiled Monday that it is upgrading its server to speed up access.
Using 2003-07 data from the New York State Cancer Registry and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the map, believed to be the first of its kind, allows people to search for the number of cases of the 23 most common cancers in a census block, the smallest area measured by the U.S. Census.
It also marks any of 15 types of environmental facilities in the area. These include chemical storage areas or hazardous waste sites, but draws no link between those sites and cancer cases and should be interpreted with caution, some scientists and advocates say.
Health department spokeswoman Diane Mathis said there were about 20,000 visits Monday to the map website.
"Based on the traffic to our main public website and the slow response of the map application, we think the demand has been even greater today," Mathis said Tuesday.
She said the department hopes the new server will be operational Wednesday morning.
"Right now, we're in the novelty stage; it will level off in the future," Mathis said of the traffic to the site. She said the health department did not get additional manpower or money to implement the map, mandated by legislation passed two year ago.
"It's extremely important," she said. "It will give scientists information they so desperately need."
But scientists, while also praising the state for making the information public, cautioned that the data had to be interpreted carefully.
"I think in general it's useful to have this level of data released," said Jaymie Meliker, an environmental epidemiologist in the department of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center.
But Meliker said the map would be more helpful if it listed cancer rates - not just the number of cancer cases - in a census block, which are more easily compared with statewide or county cancer rates. And he said it would be useful to have this overlaid with other information such as socioeconomics, ethnicity and age, all of which can be risk factors for cancer.
Both he and Dr. Daniel Budman, associate director of oncology at the Monter Cancer Center of the North Shore-LIJ Health System, also said looking at small numbers in small geographic areas can be misleading.
"You have to be very, very careful looking at very tiny populations," Budman said. "If you find a super rare tumor and if there's incredible density, you might be worried." But otherwise a high number of cases could represent a "statistical fluke," he said.
The map is one of several online tools the state provides to track cancer cases throughout New York. Cancer rates - the number of cases per 100,000 people - are available by county, along with the number of cases in every ZIP code in the state.
The New York Department of Health has provided an online map showing cancer numbers by census tract for 2003-07. It also shows all environmental facilities in or near a specific neighborhood - for instance, the ones we've chosen to illustrate in Centereach and West Hempstead. The map comes with a long list of reasons why users must be careful in interpreting the information, including that the map doesn't take into account risk factors or provide information on whether chemicals are actually released from the environmental sites.
To access the map, go to newsday.com/health