Study: Warren County’s high cancer rates come down to pollution overlooked by DOH

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GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – In late 2019, the New York State Department of Health investigated Warren County’s abnormally high cancer rates – the highest in the state for some cancers. Their verdict was that the blame lay on lifestyle choices, like obesity, smoking and drinking.

On Thursday, a Glens Falls environmental group challenged that decision, saying that the state either overlooked or intentionally ignored critical environmental and pollution factors that shouldn’t be ignored.

In a presentation, the Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls showed data on cancer rates within the county, paired with rates of the lifestyle factors that New York pinned those numbers on. Despite the state verdict, Warren County is around the median smoking and drinking rates for the state at large, and significantly below for obesity.

On top of that, environmental physician David Carpenter spoke on the high concentration of PCB particles within the county. Many of those are in the air, from factories like Wheelabrator in Hudson Falls and Finch Paper in Glens Falls. In their investigation, the state department of health only investigated air quality data as recent as the mid-1990s, and found that data to be within limits.

Past the gap between that period and now, Carpenter also pointed out the presence of PCBs beyond the air. The former General Electric plant in Fort Edward was the site of extensive dredging in the 1970s, and the sediment produced in that process was used by many Glens Falls property owners to fill in their yards.

The residual effect of that work, decades later, can be seen in work by the Department of Health itself. In one study, blood samples were taken from Glens Falls residents and from those in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, closer to both Wheelabrator and the General Electric facility. To the department’s surprise, it was Glens Falls who showed the higher level of PCBs.

The question of why the department overlooked or ignored environmental data doesn’t have a clear answer. The next step is for members of the environmental group to get support, pushing their work up to state eyes.

Erin Silk with the New York Department of Health contacted News 10 ABC with the following information about the state’s investigation:

The Department’s 2019 Cancer Incidence Report for the Warren County Study Area evaluated available data on environmental factors, including environmental contaminants in outdoor air. PCBs were addressed in the 2019 Report specifically as a potential air pollutant. Data from Dr. Edward Fitzgerald’s Hudson River Community Study were evaluated and summarized as follows: Air samples taken in the Glens Falls area in 2000 and 2002 showed that the average outdoor air PCB levels were low and within the range of levels reported for other research projects in the U.S. where there were no unusual sources of PCBs. Among the 22 industrial and inactive hazardous waste sites in Warren County that were evaluated, there were several that contained or had contained PCBs. The evaluation found no evidence suggesting that contamination from these sites was causing widespread exposures in Warren County that would account for the elevated cancer rates.

Erin Silk, New York State Department of Health

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