2009-05-07 / Front Page

Meeting discusses links to Oak Park cancer

'We can't leave here and not do anything,' resident says
By Sophia Fischer sfischer@theacorn.com

SOPHIA FISCHER/Acorn Newspapers MAPPING IT OUT—William Bowling of the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education shows residents the relationship of Rocketdyne to Oak Park. Toxic cleanup is underway, but locals fear it's too late. SOPHIA FISCHER/Acorn Newspapers MAPPING IT OUT—William Bowling of the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education shows residents the relationship of Rocketdyne to Oak Park. Toxic cleanup is underway, but locals fear it's too late. Concern over an April 23 Acorn story about a spike in the number of cancer cases in Oak Park prompted 150 people to attend a public meeting last week at Mae Boyar community park.

Fears surfaced that the disease might be linked to chemicals from Rocketdyne's former rocket engine and nuclear testing at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, only about five miles from Oak Park.

William Bowling and Christina Walsh, co-founders of the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education in Chatsworth, were invited by an Oak Park resident to give a presentation on the history of the 2,850-acre site, which has come under under attack for the way the potentially toxic chemicals and radionucleotides at the location were discarded.

Bowling and Walsh opened the museum a year ago to increase public awareness. Walsh lives two miles from the testing site in Canoga Park and Bowling's grandfather, who died of pancreatic cancer, worked for North American Aviation, the parent company of Rocketdyne/ Boeing. Bowling and Walsh also wrote a book, "Santa Susana Field Laboratory," and earned an environmental excellence award in February from the City of Calabasas.

Studies have shown that the site, which is now jointly controlled by Boeing, NASA and the Department of Energy, leeched contaminants into the soil and groundwater and released toxins into the atmosphere that could have wafted to nearby communities such as Oak Park.

At the meeting, audience reaction that ranged from anger to doubt. One man called for a class action lawsuit.

"I can appreciate that feeling," Walsh said. "I felt outraged when I first started working on this. We can fight the big way you want but the process will continue and we'll miss it. We're working with the polluters and bringing evidence to NASA and Boeing."

Several residents asked about specific studies involving Oak Park. Walsh said there were none. Studies by the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Epidemiology and the UCLA Center for Environmental Risk Reduction, however, discovered increased rates in certain cancers for areas that were near the field laboratory.

The Michigan study found a 60 percent higher rate of certain cancers between 1988 and 2002 among residents living within two miles of the site compared to those living more than five miles away.

"Radioactive material has a very long half-life and releases did go into the atmosphere," Walsh said. "Pits up there were burning chemicals for decadesYou can make somewhat of a judgment that the winds blew some of those chemicals here."

Walsh urged residents to contact the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to express their concern about Oak Park.

"I think if a group of people said, 'We want to know about our community,' they'd come test," Walsh said. "Just the fact that there are so many people here says they should test."

During the two-hour meeting, several people gave emotional accounts of their battle with cancer, and wondered aloud about the possible link to Rocketdyne.

"Why are so many people in our community suffering?" Oak Park resident Lisa Rhode asked. "What we need to do as a community is to see if this rate of cancer is the same as the general population in other communities."

The Acorn's April article described half-a-dozen Oak Park cancer cases, including two teenage boys and one teenage girl.

"No matter where you live people are going to get heart disease and cancer," said Darius Jatulis, a statistician in the health industry and an Oak Park resident.

Said Walsh, "Cancer is a part of life today, but we can't excuse it (just) because it's going to happen anyway," Walsh said.

Dr. Susan Jerian, an oncologist and also an Oak Park resident, said she wasn't confident in the information given at the meeting.

"We need scientists," Jerian said. "To do this issue justice you need to look at other communities, not just Oak Park."

Other residents had heard enough and demanded action.

"We can't leave here and not do anything," said Oak Park resident Leah Winck.

Responding to an audience request, Walsh and Bowling created an Oak Park link on their website, www.acmela.org.

The site tells viewers how to contact government leaders and provides information about upcoming meetings, including a session from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Thurs., May 28 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave.

Another outlet is an e-mail chat group that uses the address, TheRocketdyneInformationSociety @yahoogroups.com.

A cleanup deadline at the rocket testing site has been set for 2017.

Watchdogs groups are also concerned about a meeting tomorrow (Fri., May 8) by the Ventura County Regional Water Quality Control Board that could change Boeing's pollution discharge permit and relax the enforcement controls placed on the manufacturer.

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