Town of Tonawanda residents came to a meeting Monday hoping for answers about what the old Linde plant might have done to their health. They left with a familiar companion: skepticism.
About 50 people showed up at Holmes Elementary School to hear state Health Department officials share findings from a follow-up to a 2001 study showing cancer rates 10 percent higher than normal in the ZIP codes 14150 and 14217.
Several residents have long suspected that radioactive materials processed at the plant in the 1940s in connection with the Manhattan Project are linked to the high incidences of cancer that were later found in the surrounding neighborhood.
But instead of a direct connection, the follow-up study found that residents received little, if any, radiological exposure from the plant operations and that none of the cancers usually associated with exposure to ionizing radiation were more prevalent in residents living nearest the plant.
"All of the findings of the study provide no evidence that the occurrence of cancer in this neighborhood surrounding the Linde site could have been affected by any potential exposure to radiation from Linde," said Aura Weinstein, director of the state Health Department's Cancer Surveillance Program.
After a presentation by Dr. Martin Mahoney, a cancer epidemiologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, on how the various types of known cancers overlap into the area of environmental health, Weinstein provided broad overview of the methodology and the results of the Health Department study.
Later, Weinstein joined Dr. Gregory Young, medical director of the state Health Department's Western Region office, to answer residents' questions on the follow-up study. Those attending the meeting were given index cards on which to write questions but were not permitted to directly address the panel.
Philip F. Sweet, who heads the group Toxic in Tonawanda, tried to challenge the format. "Do you believe this (format) is in the best interest of this community?" he asked.
Health Department officials explained that the format was intended to allow as many people as possible to have their questions answered and assured Sweet that residents could individually approach health officials with questions after the meeting.
Earlier, Sweet was not swayed by the findings of the follow-up study. "The incidence of thyroid cancer in women is 81 percent above New York State average. Now weren't public officials rushing down here to this site to find out what was going on?" he said outside the auditorium where the hearing was held.
Inside, state officials read a question from a resident who recounted that she had had colorectal cancer, as well as niece who was diagnosed with brain cancer, a sister who had had a cancerous growth removed, a brother who worked at the Linde plant and died of cancer and a neighbor who died of cancer. "I think this is more than coincidence. Don't you?" the resident said.
Young suggested that such anecdotal evidence was never as reliable as the New York State Cancer Registry.
"Not infrequently, we get a different story from family members than we do when we go back and review medical records," Young said. "Somebody who thought it was breast cancer or thought it was lung cancer, the story that gets reported to me is another kind of cancer."
"The state Health Department used very accurate means to identify not only occurrence of cancer but the specific type of cancer that was diagnosed so that when you look at the breakdown by site you know that number of observed cases is accurate," he added.