Clarendon health survey may hold answer to cancer rates

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(Host) A number of Clarendon residents were going door to door this week to encourage their neighbors to fill out a health survey. It’s part of an ongoing effort to address concerns about high rates of cancer in the community. Health officials say they’ll look into the use of pesticides on farmland, leaks from underground storage tanks and water quality in Clarendon.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, townspeople and state health experts are working closely together on the project, but they all admit that finding answers will be difficult:

(Keck) The story starts in October of 2000. That’s when Wanda Crossman’s 11-year-old daughter Kayla was diagnosed with leukemia. Six months later, Crossman says one of Kayla’s classmates was diagnosed with the same leukemia. Then a third child was diagnosed.

(Crossman) “The school is so small that it just bothered me. And once the forth child got sick, we knew that something had to be done, we had to try.”

(Keck) Last February, Crossman and another local parent, Jackie Fenner, formed Clarendon FIRST, Families Interested in Researching Sickness Together. Fenner’s kitchen became their headquarters.

(Fenner) “We started doing a little talking to community members, see if they knew of anything that had been going on in our town in the last 15 years. And then we started doing a lot of research on the Internet. We went to Google and typed in anything and cancer – this pesticide and cancer, any type of chemical and cancer to see if we could find an answer as to how specifically our children might have gotten sick.”

(Keck) Fenner says they never found any answers, but she says what they did find disturbed them enough to keep digging. Wanda Crossman says their Internet research led them to Waterbury where they poured over documents from the departments of Agriculture and Hazardous Materials.

(Crossman) “I was surprised that there was so much historical contamination in this town. Remembering what we read on the Internet with cancer and then I’m seeing it on these public documents that it was in our area.”

(Keck) Door to door surveys uncovered even more startling findings. The group says the incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that affects the lymph nodes, is 11 times the national average and they say the incidence of leukemia in Clarendon is 19 times the national average.

But Bill Bress, state toxicologist for the Vermont Department of Health, says the cancer rates that Clarendon FIRST is reporting are much higher than those found by the state, and he says it’s a discrepancy they’re working hard to address. Clarendon FIRST has been asking local residents to complete and return a confidential health questionnaire. But only about 300 have been filled out. The group is going door to door this week to encourage more people to fill out and return the form. Bill Bress says the additional data will be vital to the state’s investigation.

(Bress) “The quicker the questionnaires are completed and sent in, the faster we can go about determining what types of epidemiology that we need to do.”

(Keck) Bress says they need to know things like people’s occupational background; what sorts of things their parents were exposed to; what type of diet people have; if they smoke; if they live next to a dump; and where their water comes from.

(Bress) “So then you take all those questions and find some commonality in that and then try to link that with something in the environment. It’s extremely difficult to do.”

(Keck) But Bress says it’s necessary to find answers. Members of Clarendon FIRST have identified a number of places in town that they want the state to investigate for possible contaminates. One, a small stretch of road that backs up against the town’s elementary school, is particularly disturbing.

Joan and Bob Bixby have lived on Moulton Avenue for 38 years. Joan was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995. She’s in remission now, but when her husband Bob was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, she began to ask her neighbors more questions about their illnesses. What she found stunned her.

(Bixby) “Well, we start down the street, there’s a husband and wife. He died of liver cancer and she died of stomach cancer. And the house next door, the man has since past away, he had colon cancer and right next door, he had lung cancer and on the other side, he had lung cancer. And on the other side of him, she had colon cancer and on the other side of them, a husband and wife. He had colon cancer and she died of leukemia. And that made me think, what is going on here? And my main concern is – not to panic the parents, but we’re right next to the elementary school – and that was my main concern.”

(Keck) The state has already tested water, soil and air around the elementary school. Tim Raymond is a water quality expert with the state.

(Raymond) “The water supply division is doing a great deal of water quality assessment in the area and we’re testing public water supply wells for contaminants that have never been looked for in those drinking water systems.”

(Keck) In all, Raymond says they’ve tested for some 58 contaminates including pesticides and herbicides. So far, he says drinking water samples around the school tested safe, and no contaminates have been found in the soil.

The state is also expanding its testing in and around the East Clarendon General store, which is about a mile east of the school on Route 103. In 1990, the state discovered several underground gas tanks had contaminated nearby ground water. The spill was extensive, but state experts say the six-year, $1.3 million clean up went well. Water testing there has been ongoing, but because of recent concerns the state has expanded its testing along Route 103 to include more wells and a wider array of contaminates. So far, Tim Raymond says the water has been found to be clean.

(Raymond) “Are there other factors in the area that need to be considered? Likely there are, what they are at this point is unknown and that’s really the purpose for getting into this investigation in greater detail. Because these cancer clusters are a concern to us at the state, but they’re complex, they’re complicated. It could be not only an environmental relationship, but it could be where people work. We don’t know. That’s what we’re looking at.”

(Keck) State officials say they’re currently determining what other sites in town may need testing. Clarendon FIRST cofounder Jackie Fenner is proud of what the group has accomplished, and she’s pleased by what the state has done so far. But she admits the effort often feels overwhelming.

(Fenner) “I had a gentleman call me two days ago from Salisbury and said he lives on a three mile street and 30 people have cancer on his street. And he was just baffled and once he heard that we were doing something down here, he said well, what do I do? It just seems like it’s Pandora’s box. And I’m not undermining the problem that Clarendon has here, it’s just I think every community has a Pandora’s box and who’s going to open it and what do you do after you open it?”

(Keck) Jackie Fenner and the many others working with Clarendon FIRST are trying to figure that out.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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