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High cancer rates in 3 Suffolk communities discussed

Deputy Health Commissioner Brad Hutton told attendees at

Deputy Health Commissioner Brad Hutton told attendees at a public meeting at Stony Brook University's Sidney Gelber Auditorium Tuesday that researchers found no evidence that environmental factors such as air or water pollution are responsible for especially high rates of cancers in Centereach, Farmingville and Selden. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Several residents who attended a state Health Department meeting Tuesday night called for further studies on why three central Suffolk County communities have high rates of cancer, saying the state hasn’t investigated the possible causes thoroughly enough.

Deputy Health Commissioner Brad Hutton told about two dozen people at a Stony Brook University auditorium that researchers found no evidence that environmental factors such as air or water pollution are responsible for especially high rates of lung, bladder and thyroid cancers, and leukemia, in Centereach, Farmingville and Selden.

“So there’s no plan to gather any new data or to look any deeper into these communities?” asked Maureen Murphy, executive programs manager for Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Hutton said the data the state analyzed — including 20 years of water-quality data from the Suffolk County Water Authority, and years of air-quality data from nearby Holtsville — was comprehensive.

Murphy called on the state to measure air quality in the three communities, not nearby, and to more thoroughly examine water data. She said after the meeting that “the community came out for answers and instead they got blamed.”

She was referring to how Hutton said higher rates of tobacco smoking and obesity in the three communities were among the reasons for the higher cancer rates.

Hutton said after the meeting that, of the four cancers, air pollution is most closely linked to lung cancer. But with the air testing in Holtsville, and higher rates of smoking in the three communities, there is no evidence air quality is a contributing factor to the higher than average lung cancer rates, he said.

Alena Berenblatt attended the meeting because she grew up in Medford, across the street from Farmingville, and she was diagnosed with leukemia at age 19, in 1983, and her brother was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma at age 12. Both are survivors but have wondered whether there was something in that area that caused their cancers. She said she left the meeting “with more questions than answers.”

“It was a limited study,” she said. “I’ve never seen them seek out survivors 40 years later.”

Berenblatt said the state should interview people like her and her brother.

Murphy said many of the homes in the three communities were built on formerly agricultural land, but the state did not examine agricultural pesticide use in the area from years past.

Hutton acknowledged during his presentation that a problem with tracking the causes of cancer was that cancer takes five to 40 years to develop after exposure to a contaminant. He said after the meeting that state researchers used data that went as far back as they're aware of to look at possible past environmental causes but “we don’t have any way to reconstruct the environmental data from earlier decades.”

The state compared cancer incidence in Centereach, Farmingville and Selden between 2011 and 2015 with other parts of the state outside New York City. Researchers found that the three communities — which have a combined population of about 65,000 — had a leukemia rate 51% higher than elsewhere in the state, a thyroid cancer rate 46% higher, a lung cancer rate 40% higher and a urinary bladder cancer rate 30% higher.

One counterintuitive factor that could explain the higher rates — especially for thyroid cancer — is that the three communities have greater health insurance coverage than elsewhere in the state. That means residents are more likely to undergo exams and screenings that detect cancer, Hutton said.

The Stony Brook meeting was the last of four state officials have held across the New York in the past three weeks in areas with elevated cancer rates. The state also found high incidences of some types of cancer on Staten Island and in upstate Warren County and parts of the Buffalo area. Warren County had the state’s highest rate of all cancers combined, researchers found.

At the meeting, Hutton announced that earlier in the day, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had announced a state grant of $675,000 for a three-year cancer prevention and detection effort for Suffolk County. The money will be for the entire county and not just focused on the four types of elevated cancer rates in Centereach, Farmingville and Selden, Hutton said. Separately, the state will work with Suffolk County on tobacco-cessation efforts, he said.

The three other areas the state has studied will each receive $675,000 grants, Hutton said.