Five months after local elected officials hosted a town hall meeting in Elmont to address the community’s cancer rates, community members are still waiting for action. At the same time, the state Department of Health has been conducting a statewide investigation into cancer hot spots, including Long Island.
The April 26 meeting was organized by County Legislator Carrié Solages and State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, and included officials from the Nassau County Department of Health, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, South Nassau Communities Hospital and the Western Nassau Water District.
Elmont residents have long been concerned that rates for all cancers are generally higher than in surrounding communities. And rates for individual cancers, such as prostate cancer, are nearly 50 percent higher than expected, according to the state cancer registry.
The registry collates data in five-year increments and compares the expected rate for each type of cancer with the actual number of cases observed. The expected rate is weighted to include ethnicity and age, among other factors.
“After the [April] meeting, the momentum just dropped off,” community activist Mimi Pierre-Johnson said. “We’ve been through this before, but it was disappointing that nothing happened,” she said.
Pierre-Johnson is starting a civic association, tentatively to be called the Elmont Cultural Center, and said she hoped that it would be able to do more than raise consciousness about the need for testing. “Screening for all types of cancer is great,” she said, “but we’re not getting to the source.”
Speculation has long been rife in the community as to why some cancers occur at a higher rate than in neighboring communities. “I’ve spoken to so many people about the gas stations and [industrial] laundries,” Pierre-Johnson said, referring to the large number of sites along Elmont Road that have since been remediated. The hamlet’s water supply comes from four surface wells on Elmont road. “And when you look at the creek and see the oily film, it just looks like something is wrong.”
Nevertheless, water quality reports for the Western Nassau Water District since 2001 have not shown elevated rates for any of the volatile organic compounds tested, and no causal link between cancer and the aquifer from which Elmont draws its water has ever been conclusively shown.
According to Deputy State Health Commissioner Brad Hutton, elevated rates of cancer do not necessarily indicate a single cause. “The fact that a number of people living on the same block have cancer doesn’t necessarily constitute a cancer cluster,” he said. This is because many cancers are slow growing and may have several root causes. The most important causal factors are genetics, personal health behaviors and environmental factors, he said.
Genetics play the most significant role, Hutton said. For example, African-American men are 60 percent more likely than Caucasians to contract prostate cancer. Roughly 44 percent of the population of Elmont is African-American, according to Data USA, a database pegged to the U.S. Census Bureau. And while African-American women contract breast cancer at a marginally lower rate than Caucasian women, they have a higher rate of early-onset breast cancer and a higher mortality rate, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Health behaviors can also have a significant effect on the development of some cancers. “Smoking is the most significant negative behavior leading to cancer,” Hutton said, echoing the message imparted by the earlier panel. Obesity can have an impact as well, particularly in the case of prostate cancer, he said.
In Elmont, the expected incidence of prostate cancer was 46 percent higher than in neighboring Franklin Square, while the actual number of cases was 49 percent higher still, according to the cancer registry. Elmont’s higher baseline could be explained by its larger African-American population. But the reason for the higher number of actual cases remains unclear.
Environmental issues are the third element, Hutton said. For instance, radiation exposure is a proven risk factor in the development of thyroid cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, although genetics are also significant in many forms of the disease. “You can’t change your genetics,” Hutton said, “but you can address the other factors.”
The state study bypassed Elmont, because researchers were looking for areas with elevated rates for several different types of cancer, Hutton said. “We chose four communities where we saw a higher than expected incidence of bladder, lung and thyroid cancers, as well as leukemia,” he said. The four types of cancer suggested a wider range of possible causes than were present in Elmont.
Pierre-Johnson hopes her new organization will be able to take a long view of cancer in Elmont. “We’re not interested in blaming anyone,” she said. “We don’t want to start a scare to where people try to sell their houses.” At present, she is garnering community support for the center while looking for a location.
“Nothing happens unless people in
the community empower themselves,”