Tonawanda News

February 13, 2013

Town's cancer rates elevated in industrial corridor

Reaction: Clean Air Coalition calls for environmental action after DOH report.

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — A long-awaited two-year study of Tonawanda’s health, released Monday, indicates elevated rates of cancer among residents living in the town’s industrial corridor.

The news draws attention yet again to the constant environmental worries in the area as well as the allegations that the industrial plants are knowingly emitting dangerous chemicals into the air. 

The state Department of Health initiative began in 2010 and was brought about by the state Department of Environmental Air Quality Study, which found high concentrations of a known carcinogen, benzene, as well as formaldehyde, in the Tonawanda air. 

The DOH concentrated on reproductive effects and cancer, as both have been associated with exposure to benzene and formaldehyde. 

The DOH study found “statistically significant elevations” of lung cancer and bladder cancer in both males and females, esophageal cancer in males and uterine cancer in females, as well as oral-cavity/pharynx cancer in males and leukemia among women.

In one subsection studied, Sheridan Park, the DOH expected to find 268 cases of cancer, but 332 cases were found. 

The DOH also found evidence of elevated preterm births and heart defects in newborns, but evidence of elevated major defects was, fortunately, not discovered. 

“This confirms what our residents are living each day,” Rebecca Newberry, of the Clean Air Coalition said. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls specifically about the lung and bladder cancer, and many people are feeling a little bit vindicated.” 

The DOH worked with the DEC to identify areas of the town that were more likely to have high or moderate effects from benzene exposure, and examined health outcomes in four different subsections identified as Brookside-Terrace, Sheridan Park, Riverside and Grand Island. 

The study examines rates between 1990 and 2009, and the rates were then compared to analyses of statewide data and Erie and Niagara county rates. 

The study found that bladder cancer had statistically significant elevations in the Brookside area for men; total cancers, lung cancer and bladder cancer had statistically significant elevations in Sheridan Park for men and women.

Elevations of uterine cancer in Sheridan Park were also found. 

No types of cancer were statistically significantly elevated in Riverside except for lung cancer for women, and in Grand Island, esophageal cancer was statistically significantly elevated among men, and uterine cancer among women.

In the report, available online on the DOH website, officials make clear the the study cannot prove that environmental issues have caused the higher rates of cancer.

“There are many other factors that may also contribute to the development of these types of cancer,” the report says. “These factors include smoking, family history, and occupational exposures, as well as others. In the general population, smoking is the most important risk factor for both lung and bladder cancer. We do not know the individual medical and exposure histories for the people included in this study.”

A public comment period will now be open until March 31 and residents are invited to provide feedback about the study by contacting the DOH through e-mail to, by phone to James Bowers, M.P.H. at (518) 402-7950 or by mail to: Tonawanda Comments, NYS DOH BEOE, Empire State Plaza, Corning Tower, Room 1203, Albany, New York 12237.

The DOH is also holding a presentation and discussion on the report on Feb. 28 at the Sheridan Parkside Community Center located at 169 Sheridan Parkside Drive. 

The CAC will also discuss the report at their meeting Feb. 20 at the American Legion Brounschidle Post, 3354 Delaware Ave., Kenmore. The organization is calling for action following the release of the study.

“We need strong political leadership at all levels of government — from our Town Supervisor Tony Caruana up to Tonawanda’s new Congressman Brian Higgins,” the organization’s director Erin Heaney said.

The CAC is demanding agencies enforce EPA regulations at Tonawanda Coke and are also asking DEC Commissioner Joe Martens to honor his promise and visit the area’s sick residents by March 31. 

Residents will also present their years-worth of community-based research results at the meeting.

Attendees will be able to look at the results of the research and vote on what they think are the top five environmental concerns.

“The results will direct our work for the future and hopefully bring more resources into the town to bring down those risks,” Newberry said. 

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150