2009-04-23 / Community

Oak Park worries about cancer cases

By Sophia Fischer sfischer@theacorn.com

A group of Oak Park residents is speaking out about what they feel is a spike in the number of cancer cases recently diagnosed in their community, but cancer clusters are difficult to prove, experts say, and fears that the disease might be linked to the former rocket engine and nuclear testing site at the nearby Santa Susana Field Lab remain unproven.

Environmental and epidemiological studies previously found that the employee cancer deaths at Rocketdyne—the rocket-research company that operated at the field lab for more than 40 years—were the result of human exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The nearly 3,000-acre site, which is currently controlled by the Boeing Company and NASA, lies in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. It is also within five miles of Oak Park.

"I started finding it alarming that every person I ran into had someone with cancer on their street," Oak Park resident Cheryl Zelico said. "I don't know if there's more cancer everywhere or if it's just hitting Oak Park."

A public informational meeting will be at 7 p.m., Wed., April 29 at the Mae Boyar Park recreation building on Kanan Road in Oak Park. The guest speaker will be William Bowling, founder of the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education in Chatsworth. Findings are released

Recent studies conducted by the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and by the UCLA Center for Environmental Risk Reduction attempted to address the concerns about the Rocketdyne waste.

The studies found contaminant migration in groundwater, soil, and the release of toxins into the atmosphere up to five miles from the site. But the studies stopped short of saying the "activities at Santa Susana Field Lab caused health problems for community members."

"We did, in fact, find increased incidence rates of certain cancers associated with proximity to the facility, the significance of which would require further research," wrote Dr. Hal Morgenstern, who led the Michigan study.

Morgenstern's study found a 60 percent higher rate of certain cancers between 1988-2002 among residents living within two miles of the site than those living more than five miles away.

Cases in Oak Park

Cody Badalato, 14, died suddenly last December from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Tim Potter, 19, has been hospitalized for five months with leukemia.

A 15yearold girl has ovarian cancer that's metastasized to her lung, and several women have newly diagnosed advanced cases of ovarian or breast cancer. Others in the community have thyroid, brain and prostate cancers.

The women's breat cancer cases didn't seem unusual to Oak Park resident Susie Iazzetta.

"But then when (the cancer) started hitting the kids, that seemed unusual," Iazzetta said.

Among the older cases, one woman who's lived in Oak Park for 30 years has had cancer eight times.

In December 2003, Mark Roshke was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, a rare advanced brain cancer, as was resident Rick Rhodes, the Oak Park High School drama teacher who died in 2005. After 30 chemotherapy cycles, Roshke has been in remission for nearly two years.

"He was 44-years-old at the time of diagnosis, in excellent health, never smoked, not a drinker, rarely used cellphones, and did not have a history of cancer in his family," said his wife, Andrea Roshke. The family moved to Oak Park in 1990.

The numbers

Kathleen Horton, a cancer program manager at Ventura's Community Memorial Hospital, agreed the incidence of cancer in Oak Park has been "high."

But, as Horton says, "It takes many years to prove that numbers are higher in one area. It has to be that way for 10 years before they'll say yes the numbers are higher."

Horton previously headed the Tri-Counties Regional Cancer Registry that tracks cancer cases in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. California law requires hospitals and health care providers to report every cancer diagnosis made to the state cancer registry.

Between 19962006 the number of cases of breast cancer (123) and invasive melanoma (38) in Oak Park exceeded what might normally be expected for a community that size, said Monica Brown, a cancer registry epidemiologist. But given Oak Park's location and demographics, the findings were not surprising, Brown said.

"Upper middle class neighborhoods tend to have higher rates of certain cancers like breast cancer," Brown said. "Women put off child-bearing, which is a risk factor for breast cancer."

In California, statistics show that 45 percent of all men and 41 percent of women will develop cancer sometime in their lives.

Attributing cancer to the environment can be tricky work, says Dr. Jan Beyea, a New Jerseybased scientist who conducted a five-year study linking hundreds of cancer cases in surrounding areas to a nearby nuclear testing site.

"State health departments usually don't like to get involved because they are afraid to frighten everybody," Beyea said. "It's a challenge taking it on to determine if it's accidental, real, or what could be the cause."

In an August 2006 letter to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Boeing denied any link between Rocketdyne operations and increased rates of cancer. Boeing Company purchased Rocketdyne in 1996.

"A preliminary review by our chemists leads us to believe that in all probability no hazardous residues resulted from the combustion processes," the company said in a statement.

Other causes

Dan Hirsch, president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, says he doesn't know if Oak Park has a cancer problem.

"Yes, you can still be getting exposed to stuff from the site that the wind carries," Hirsch said. "It's 2,850 acres up on a mountain that for more than half a century did really dangerous work releasing contaminants and they have dragged their feet to do the cleanup."

It's important to note that the site sustained substantial damage in the 2005 wildfires. There've been allegations that the contaminants absorbed by plant life were burned and released into the atmosphere. But as Marie Panec, a Moorpark College biology teacher and Oak Park resident, says, "It's so difficult to prove any of this."

Contaminants can also be carried to different locations via water.

"Every time it rains, that contamination runs down. If your soil is contaminated you're exposed," said Bowling, the April 29 Oak Park speaker. The cleanup

In January, the California Environmental Protection Agency rejected efforts to place the site on the federal Superfund cleanup list.

The state felt it could provide better cleanup in less time without national oversight due to tough new environmental laws. Once cleaned, the site will be donated to the state for parkland. The cleanup deadline is June 2017.

"We first have to complete the characterization of the site, then identify potentially suitable cleanup technologies, and test those to ascertain whether they will actually be effective in achieving cleanup goals," said Norman E. Riley, project director for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which will oversee the mop-up.

Ongoing meetings are being held involving the Substances Control Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, and former field lab workers and current residents of the area, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks said.

"The current status of those talks include consideration of how to remove hundreds, if not thousands of truckloads of contaminated soil, which can cause dust and aerial migration of contaminants," Parks said.

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