Cancer rate higher than expected near landfill

by Jordan Green

A study released by the NC Central Cancer Registry on Election Day finds that the number of pancreatic cancer cases in the area of the White Street Landfill and EH Glass dump in northeast Greensboro is “significantly greater than expected.”

The finding confirms a suspicion long held by residents of the area.

“Remember our former city councilwoman, Claudette Burroughs-White, who mentioned that she was ‘a walking time bomb’ with all the exposure she had to the landfill from birth to death,” area resident Mary Lou Clapp said in remarks to city council in early June. “She is only one of the many people in our area suffering from allergies, asthma, other diseases and all kinds of cancer.”

The cancer registry calculated an expected number of cancer cases for 2000 Census block groups in the area of waste sites by applying “age- and gender-specific cancer incidence rates for the state to the age- and genderspecific populations of the census block groups.

The study found that incidents of pancreatic cancer from 1990 to 2006 occurred at more than twice the expected rate, with multiple myeloma, central nervous system brain cancer, non- Hodgkins disease and leukemia also manifesting at abnormal rates.

The study cautions that the statistical findings do not imply causation, noting that the city annexed most of the residences in the area of the landfill and dump in the mid-1950s, putting them on municipal water. The city’s two primary water sources, lakes Townsend and Brandt, are located far from the waste sites in well-protected watersheds. Although the number of people using wells during the operation of the landfills has not been ascertained, the study estimated that they would be a small number compared to the overall population.

A second possible route of exposure might be air.

“From what I hear, there haven’t been complaints of horrible smells coming from there,” said Douglas Campbell, head of the occupational and environmental epidemiology branch at the NC Division of Public Health. “I don’t think there could be enough of anything in the air to cause pancreatic cancer without other complaints of other diseases.”

Campbell said the division has no plans to conduct a cluster investigation, which would look into the histories of people diagnosed with disease in the area, including occupational exposures, hereditary illnesses in families and personal habits such as smoking and diet.

He also said the waste sites could not be definitively ruled out as of disease, the only known causes of pancreatic cancer are smoking, diabetes and chronic pancreatitis.

The findings contradict materials submitted by Bob Mays, a former city councilman who is proposing to reopen the White Street Landfill as a bio-conversion facility, to the council and filed as an exhibit with the minutes for the council’s Sept. 15, 2009 meeting.

Referencing Karen Knight, manager of the NC Central Cancer Registry, a documented entitled “White Street Landfill Health Concerns” that Mays submitted to the city council states, “Studies show there is no causal link to cancers or other critical illness to humans located nearer to a regulated, monitored landfill…. There have been no patterns of cancer or critical illness in these findings, and Ms. Knight explained the White Street study will reveal the same results.”

Representations by Mays’ group of an NC A&T University professor and a neighborhood leader have similarly raised objections, and led to questions about whether his company is implying endorsement to advance the project.

“We know, in discussions with Dr. [Benjamin] Uwakweh, who is dean of the North Carolina A&T School of Technology, and the Waste Institute, through empowering the neighbors in the daily operations, we can address the health problems, eliminate the odor issues and correct traffic problems.”

Mays also submitted a printout of a the School of Technology’s webpage to the city.

Uwakweh said in an interview last month that Mays’ group came to speak with him, but did not share with him what technology they planned to use, so he was unable to comment on whether it might be safe or viable.

Marc Williams, deputy general counsel for the university subsequently told YES! Weekly: “There’s no formal agreement between the university and Mr.

Mays. The university does not wish to associate itself with any of the various individuals or companies who may submit proposals. We stand ready to assist the city in anything they ask us to do.”

A separate document submitted to the council by Mays entitled, “Project Committee Contact Information,” lists the names of Uwakweh and Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, among others.

“This is really strange,” Johnson said last week. “I’m listening to Bob Mays’ proposal. I’m not signing on blindly. That’s the problem: We have these individuals coming into the community, and we really have no way of knowing what they’re going to do. They’re using us to lend their program credibility, and I take exception to that. I’m going to say something to Bob Mays. It’s almost as though we’re endorsing them; we’re not endorsing them.”