by Jordan Green

Almost two years after initial report, state defends cancer findings

A month-old report issued by the NC Division of Public Health that was distributed to Greensboro City Council members last week explains the methodology of a NC Central Cancer Registry study that found elevated rates of pancreatic cancer in the area of the White Street Landfill and the nearby EH Glass dumpsite.

The state study, which was released on Nov. 3, 2009, found that residents who live near the White Street Landfill and the EH Glass dumpsite were 1.8 times more likely to have pancreatic cancer than expected.

Another report, from the Guilford County Department of Public Health, followed up nine days later, challenging its findings by dismissing its methodology.

The county report noted that the population of the White Street area is about 53 percent black, but blacks make up only 21 percent of the state’s population. “Rates of pancreatic cancer are known to be significantly higher among African Americans,” the county study concluded, “so this fact alone is likely to explain the ‘elevated’ incidence of pancreatic cancer in the study area.”

Numerous residents affected by cancer have questioned whether they became ill because of the landfill, including former District 2 Greensboro City Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White, who died of cancer in 2007. Several plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to keep the landfill closed have cited cancer among their friends and family, stating that the city has never been able to tell them whether the illnesses were caused by the landfill.

Nonetheless, the county health department concluded in 2009: “There is no health risk to residents living near the EH Glass property and […] further investigation, including community surveys, is unwarranted.”

Now, 20 months later, the NC Division of Public Health is issuing a defense of the cancer registry’s work.

The June 2011 report states that a second pancreatic cancer rate evaluation compared the disease incidence data collected from the White Street area to a control group with a comparable percentage of African Americans drawn from Edgecombe, Northampton, Halifax and Warren counties. The cancer registry study also adjusted for age and gender to obtain a useful comparison.

Researchers again found that the rate of pancreatic cancer among those who live near the landfill and dump is 1.8 times higher than expected.

“The increased number of pancreatic cancers in the study community cannot be attributed to differences in age, gender and race since the control population was selected for its demographic similarities to the reference population,” the state division of health contends.

Still, the report notes that no causal link has been established between either the landfill or the dump and illnesses among residents.

“Identification of the elevated pancreatic cancer rates has not been linked to environmental exposures associated with the White Street Landfill,” the report finds. “There are no detections of substances moving beyond the boundaries of the landfill where people may come into contact with them, or that have been associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.”

The study raises the possibility that people living near the White Street Landfill have been exposed to “environmental contaminant sources” at the EH Glass dumpsite, which is reported to be a repository of discarded Vicks cold products. The cancer registry included pancreatic cancer in its initial evaluation because the disease is among “those that have been reported as possibly associated with exposure to chemicals disposed in older landfills and dumpsites.” The study completed last month also suggests the possibility that no contaminants caused the elevated pancreatic cancer rates “and that they are the result of other risk factors, such as genetic and lifestyle factors.”

An investigation of the EH Glass dumpsite is ongoing.