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State investigates Bethpage cancer cases

A view of the Bethpage water tower from

A view of the Bethpage water tower from 11th Street in Bethpage. (Sept. 12, 2012) Credit: Steve Pfost

The New York State Department of Health is investigating cancer cases in a Bethpage residential neighborhood where decades of chemical pollution from Grumman Corp. and U.S. Navy aviation manufacturing has contaminated groundwater.

Water districts in southern Nassau County have sparred with the state for years over how to clean up the plume -- one of the largest on Long Island -- that they say is putting water resources for their 250,000 customers at risk.

Health Department researchers are analyzing decades of cancer cases as well as data about levels of toxic chemicals in the air, said Aura Weinstein, director of the state cancer surveillance program. The results are to be released this fall.

"We've been aware of the concerns over cancer in Bethpage for a while," Weinstein said. "I think a lot of people may be concerned there is something in the neighborhood."

Residents' worries about the plume and what they say is a high number of cancer cases gained new focus in June when the state proposed a cleanup plan for contamination flowing from Bethpage Community Park, a former Grumman chemical disposal site that was legal at the time.

"I used to have gardens, plant tomatoes and different vegetables -- I would never do that again," said Bonnie Beach-Gadigian, 55, who grew up three blocks from the park and now lives one block away. "You could go nuts thinking of all the possibilities of what's going on."

The state study started in March 2009 at the request of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), but the Health Department did not publicly announce the investigation and has not told residents it was under way. State health officials said they are not required to publicize the study.

National cancer researchers say investigating cancer cases is difficult because a variety of influences such as age, race and lifestyle must be considered.

The cause for many cancers is unknown, making it harder to trace exposure, which can occur years before the disease develops, researchers said.

"In general, any cancer is caused by several factors, not one factor," said Dr. Alvaro Carrascal, senior vice president for cancer control for the American Cancer Society.

Environmental factors represent a small percentage of cancer causes, he said.

The Bethpage residential area is bordered on the north, west and south by what was the 609-acre home to Navy and Grumman operations, which used solvents and other chemicals in the production of aviation equipment ranging from the Navy's Hellcat fighter planes of World War II to the Apollo Lunar Module. Cleanup plans are being managed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mangano, who lives 1.5 miles from the community park, and Marcellino requested the inquiry after the Navy's disclosure in March 2009 that it had found cancer-causing chemicals at "elevated concentrations" in air samples around homes near the Navy plant.

Residents "have a good reason to be fearful of what might be," Marcellino said. "It's the unknown that scares you. We're trying to get rid of the unknown."

Mangano did not respond to requests for comment.


THE STUDYThe Health Department study is analyzing data from the state cancer registry dating to 1976. Each case file contains about 100 pieces of information, including the type of cancer, stage of the disease and date of diagnosis as well as the patient's address, age, race, gender, place of birth and many more details.

Weinstein would not say which streets are included in the study, adding that her group is focusing on the community park south of the former Grumman site and areas east of the old Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant, where hundreds of drums of hazardous waste were stored.

State Health Department researchers also are studying air and soil vapor data compiled by the Navy between 2006 and 2009, when the Navy conducted an environmental assessment because it wanted to sell some portions of its 109-acre site to Nassau.

The Navy found the chemicals 1,1,1-trichloroethane (TCA), trichloroethene (TCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE) in outside air samples on and around its property at levels higher than state standards. TCE has been associated with liver and kidney cancers; TCA and PCE are suspected carcinogens.

The Navy's tests checked for air toxins around 11th and 10th streets, and Sycamore and Maple avenues between October 2008 and April 2009.

Based on those results, the Navy tested air inside 18 houses and, by May 2009, installed air purification systems in 14, including Beach-Gadigian's Maple Street home. Equipment to draw air from beneath foundation slabs and vent it outside was also installed in six houses. All of the monitoring equipment was removed in late 2011 when chemicals in the air fell below state standards.

Chemicals can rise through the soil and be released into the air by a process called soil vapor intrustion. Long Island's sandy soils make it easy for toxic chemicals in groundwater to seep to the surface and into the air, said Richard Humann, president of H2M, an engineering, architectural and environmental firm in Melville.


THE CAUTIONSScientists caution that genetics, diet and other lifestyle factors can influence whether a person develops cancer. Different demographics, including age and race, make it difficult to compare cancer rates in individual neighborhoods. Areas with older residents may show more cancers than those populated with young families.

"You have different people in different communities," said Arica White, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "There's just a lot of variables."

A 2008 state law requires the Health Department to publish cancer information in a map on its website that also displays locations of contaminated areas, such as Superfund sites, as well as facilities that store bulk chemicals or oil.

The online map, which became available for public use in 2010, provides information for census blocks, typically including 1,000 to 1,500 residents. Updated numbers for 2005-09 were released in June.

Small sample sizes such as a census block can have high error rates and fluctuate annually, the cancer society's Carrascal cautioned.

Cancer, a generic term for about 100 separate diseases, is "very difficult to study," he said. "The exact cause of many cancers is unknown."

Dr. Alfred Neugut, epidemiology professor and director of the cancer training program at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, also cautioned that "every cancer is different."

Neugut was co-principal investigator for the Long Island Breast Cancer Study Project in the 1990s that found no environmental factors that could be responsible for elevated incidence of breast cancer on Long Island.

He likened cancer distribution to eating a blueberry muffin. Blueberries aren't evenly distributed throughout a muffin; one bite may include a lot of blueberries while another bite may not.

Cancer diagnoses are common. In New York State, one of every two men and one of every three women will likely be diagnosed with a cancer during their lifetimes, according to the state Department of Health.

Frances Trotter, 55, who lives a few blocks south of the park, considered the cancer cases she knew of in her neighborhood. "That's too many people," she said, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

The Bethpage Water District is conducting its own analysis of cancer cases in the area.

"Our consumers want to know if the water is making them sick and I think it's our responsibility to try to get an answer," water district attorney Anthony Sabino said.


THE CHEMICALSSeveral remediation plans have been developed for the Bethpage area where officials say at least two plumes of contaminants are moving through groundwater.

DEC efforts to clean up the contamination focus on a portion of the community park. A final recommendation on how to contain the contaminants is to be released by the end of the year.

In one so-called hot spot in that plume, the DEC found TCE levels at 9,100 micrograms per liter. The state drinking water standard is 5 micrograms per liter.

Plume contaminants have been detected in five of eight wells operated by Bethpage Water District, which has 8,800 customers. It has spent $21 million since the late 1980s to treat and remove contaminants. The TCE hot spot is approaching another Bethpage district well, the DEC said.

Exposure to TCE is associated with kidney and liver cancers, according to an eight-year EPA study of the chemical's risk.

"The liver and kidney detoxify chemicals," said Michael Sivak, chief of the mega project section focused on Superfund sites for the EPA region covering New York. "This is a chemical the body doesn't really know what to do with."

The chemicals PCE and TCA are "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," but definitive evidence has not been established, according to the Report on Carcinogens, published in 2011 by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


THE HISTORYFrom the 1940s until the 1980s, a portion of the Navy's reserve plant closest to homes along 11th Street was a drum collection site, legally storing as many as 200 to 300 containers of solvents, cadmium and cyanide each day. In the 1990s, toxic metals, solvents and chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons, or PCBs, were found in soil and groundwater, according to the Navy. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in humans and their manufacture was banned in the United States in 1979.

The Nassau County Department of Health and the U.S. Geological Survey in the late 1980s discovered a shallow plume of contamination moving south and southeast from the plant. A 2001 cleanup plan for that plume is under way.

A second, more-contaminated plume was discovered 550 feet below the surface after the state ordered Northrop Grumman in 2005 to investigate tainted groundwater beneath Bethpage Community Park. The site of the park was used as a dumping area for paint, oils, chromium-tainted sludge, arsenic and solvents. Jet and plane fuels were also burned for fire training classes.

Oyster Bay Town in 1962 acquired the land and later developed it as a park. In 2005, the town filed a federal lawsuit over the contamination against the Navy and Northrop Grumman -- the company created when Northrop purchased Grumman in 1994. In the filing, the town said it "did not know and had no reason to know that any hazardous substances had been disposed of on the park property." The suit is still being litigated.

The two plumes have spread to about a mile wide and 3.5-miles to 4.5-miles long, stretching from the Northrop Grumman site south and past Hempstead Turnpike, EPA Deputy Regional Administrator George Pavlou said.

"Eventually those plumes will enter Great South Bay," said Massapequa Water District Commissioner John Caruso, who teaches engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York and managed wastewater and water supply for Nassau County's department of public works.


THE CLEANUPThe DEC has proposed a $61.5-million cleanup plan for the park plume that includes excavating areas of the site and the yards of some nearby homes, and installing at least one treatment well to clean contaminated water.

Water district officials oppose the plan because it lets the contamination move farther south, rather than stopping it before it reaches public water wells. They want the state to install several wells to treat contaminants before they hit the public supply.

"We can't take the chance of losing one of our wells," said Dennis Kelleher, president of H2M Water, a division of H2M in Melville, which represents the Bethpage, Hicksville, Massapequa, Plainview, South Farmingdale and Village of Farmingdale water districts. All of the districts have wells potentially in the path of the plume.

Area residents and elected officials, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Mangano urged the state to be more aggressive with the cleanup.

"The Navy should be doing everything in their power to proactively clean up the mess it made before it contaminates more drinking water wells, and the EPA and DEC need to make sure they do it right," Schumer said in a statement.

King said in a statement that he would "continue to advocate for tougher measures and tests to protect our families and ensure the safety of that area."