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Officials discuss elevated cancer rates in 3 communities

Brad Hutton, a deputy commissioner for the state

Brad Hutton, a deputy commissioner for the state Office of Public Health, speaks Tuesday at Hilton Garden Inn Stony Brook during a meeting about a cancer cluster in three Long Island communities. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

More than 250 residents from three Long Island communities packed a hotel conference room to learn why a state Health Department analysis has targeted their region among four others in New York as having higher-than-expected rates of cancer.

"We are at the beginning of a journey here," Brad Hutton, deputy commissioner from the state Office of Public Health, said of the preliminary findings, which showed elevated rates of leukemia and lung, bladder and thyroid cancers. The statistics were presented to a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday evening at the Hilton Garden Inn adjacent to Stony Brook University's campus.

Numerically, there were 311 cases of lung cancer in the Centereach, Farmingville and Selden hamlets, a combined total that was 56 percent higher than the state rate for that disease.

The three-community area also had 112 cases of bladder cancer, which was 50 percent higher than the state rate; 98 cases of thyroid cancer, 43 percent higher and 87 cases of leukemia, which occurred at a rate that was 64 percent higher.

The data were derived from census mapping studies and statistics culled from the New York State Cancer Registry, a database of demographic, diagnostic and cancer prevalence dating back 75 years. The cancers were diagnosed between 2011 and 2015, Hutton said.

Certain forms of leukemia that occur in adulthood as well as bladder and lung cancers, all have strong associations with smoking. Elevated rates of thyroid cancer may be due to improved screening, which spots smaller inconsequential tumors that may have evaded medical attention in the past, Hutton said.

Those factors aside, the state will leave no stone unturned in efforts to uncloak reasons underlying elevated cancer rates in the three communities, he said Tuesday.

"There is a persistent trend over time for the four cancers that we are looking at," Hutton said, noting that the pinpointed rates did not occur as a matter of chance. The next phase of the investigation, which was mandated last fall by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, will be to investigate potential reasons that underlie the elevated rates.

Concerned residents asked a series of questions: Were electromagnetic fields too at fault? Was there a problem with air quality in the three-community area? And could the elevated cancer rates be blamed on a toxic plume that lurked invisibly under their homes?

Farmingville resident Aaron Clow told Newsday that he was at the public meeting because of drinking-water data in his neighborhood.

"I have been concerned about water quality in Farmingville," Clow said. "The water quality report in my distribution area shows pollutants have been in acceptable levels."

But Clow said he has wondered whether levels deemed acceptable for several industrial chemicals currently are too high. In addition to the pollutants, there is evidence that tap water has traces of prescription and over-the-counter medications, including phenobarbital and ibuprofen.

Tony Leung, a 24-year resident of Centereach, said he and his wife, Monica, attended the meeting because news of elevated cancer rates was alarming.

"I'm very interested in finding out what's going on because this is a little bit scary," Leung said. "I'm worried for myself, my wife and my children." The Leungs' three children range in age from 17 to 21.

The public meeting followed an earlier one at Stony Brook University in which Hutton and his team from the state Health Department met with cancer specialists and a contingent of public health experts from the Suffolk County Department of Health. During that part of the meeting, health experts explained that cancer is more than 100 diseases, all with myriad causes that cannot be easily traced. By the time most cancers are found, they have been evolving for five to 40 years, he said.