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State report links high cancer rates to smoking, obesity in Suffolk communities

Brad Hutton, deputy state health commissioner, speaks at

Brad Hutton, deputy state health commissioner, speaks at the Hilton Garden Inn Stony Brook on July 17, 2018. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

A state health department report says smoking, obesity, workplace exposure to hazardous substances and greater access to health screenings likely are among the reasons people who live in Centereach, Farmingville and Selden have higher rates of cancer than people elsewhere in the state. 

The report found no link between environmental factors such as air or water pollution and the elevated cancer incidence. Stony Brook University researchers are planning a study to determine whether exposure to contaminants decades ago could help explain it.

The state on Tuesday released a 12-page summary of its findings. The full report will be released before a Nov. 12 public meeting on the findings at Stony Brook.

The state also has been investigating high cancer rates in Staten Island, upstate Warren County and parts of the Buffalo area.

Patricia Thompson, deputy director for research at the Stony Brook University Cancer Center, said the health department made “a very thoughtful, very concerted effort” to determine what is causing the high rates of lung, bladder and thyroid cancers, and leukemia, in the three central Suffolk County communities.

The report said a review of air and water pollution data, traffic density and industrial and inactive hazardous waste disposal sites found “no unusual environmental exposures that could explain the elevated incidence of certain cancers in the study area.”

But, Thompson said, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that past exposure to contaminants is partly responsible for the high cancer rates.

“The cancer exposure, and the DNA damage that leads to cancer, can occur many, many years — even decades, 30, 40 years — ago,” she said. “It’s very hard to link those exposures to the cancers today.”

That’s particularly true when there are other factors associated with cancer, she said. The report found that higher rates of smoking in the three communities and a slightly higher proportion of people who are in occupations with greater exposure to hazardous materials — such as firefighting and construction — may help explain the higher rates of lung and bladder cancers.

Stony Brook is examining the feasibility of a large-scale study on bladder cancer throughout Suffolk County, Thompson said. It ultimately could include asking hundreds of people with bladder cancer if they are or were smokers, what jobs they have held and where they have lived, to determine potential exposure to contaminants.

It also would include examining the “footprints” of participants’ cancerous tumors, Thompson said. Mutation patterns in tumors caused by smoking are different from the mutation patterns caused by, for example, other chemicals in the environment, she said.

One possible contributing factor in the higher cancer rates is that residents of the three communities are more likely to have health care coverage, and that means they’re more likely to undergo exams and screenings that reveal cancer, said Brad Hutton, deputy state health commissioner.

Many of the thyroid cancer cases involved small, slow-growing tumors that may never produce symptoms and are rarely fatal, and may only be detectable through medical imaging, he said.

The state is focusing on Centereach, Farmingville and Selden because the three communities are the only ones on Long Island with significantly higher-than-expected rates of four types of cancer, Hutton said.

The communities, which have about 65,000 residents combined, had 311 cases of lung cancer from 2011 to 2015, a rate 40 percent higher than the state outside New York City. In previous reports on the three communities, the state had compared their cancer rates with the entire state’s, but, because of major differences in race, ethnicity and age with New York City, the state took the city out of the comparisons, Hutton said.

The three communities had 112 bladder cancer cases in that time period, 30 percent greater than the state rate excluding the five boroughs; 98 thyroid cancer cases, 46 percent higher than most of the state; and 87 leukemia cases, 51 percent higher than the state rate outside of the city.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said that with the “alarming” cancer rates in the three communities, she was “frustrated because the state dismissed environmental factors but offered no plausible societal factors.”

The health department should have done more extensive soil, air and water testing, she said.

Dr. Howard Freed, a former director of the Center for Environmental Health at the state health department, doesn’t doubt the quality of the state’s data. But he is skeptical of the assertion that no environmental factors can help explain the high cancer rates. State officials, he said, have a history of minimizing the possible impact of environmental pollutants on residents’ health to avoid alarming them, unless they are certain a contaminant is causing a higher cancer rate — even though certainty is rare, he said.

Hutton said the health department made an “exhaustive effort to look at all of the existing sources of environmental data — data on air pollution, on radon, on drinking water quality, hazardous waste sites, pesticides and traffic.”

“If there are data gaps that are identified as a result of this, I think we’d be happy to have a discussion about what those are and set a plan going forward,” he said.

PUBLIC MEETING

The state health department has scheduled a public meeting to present and explain a report on possible reasons for high rates of four types of cancer in Centereach, Farmingville and Selden.

  • When: 7 to 9 p.m., Nov. 12
  • Where: Sidney Gelber Auditorium, Stony Brook University

CANCER RATES

The state health department is focusing on cancer in Centereach, Farmingville and Selden because rates of four types of cancer there are significantly higher than in New York State as a whole, excluding New York City.

  • Lung cancer: 311 cases, 40% higher than New York State, excluding New York City
  • Urinary bladder cancer: 112 cases, 30% higher
  • Thyroid cancer: 98 cases, 46% higher
  • Leukemia: 87 cases, 51% higher

SOURCE: New York State Cancer Registry, New York State Department of Health. Data are from 2011-15.

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