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State study finds elevated levels of cancer, birth defects along Tonawanda’s industrial corridor

Elevated levels of certain cancers and birth defects were found among people who live in or near the Town of Tonawanda’s industrial corridor, according to a state Health Department review released Tuesday.

But the report also stressed that the rates did not show a cause-and-effect relationship between the factories and the illnesses.

A public meeting on the Health Department’s review is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 26, in the Sheridan Parkside Community Center, 169 Sheridan Parkside Drive, in the town.

The review compared the levels of adverse birth outcomes and cancer cases for people in a Tonawanda study area – the industrial corridor and parts of the City and Town of Tonawanda, Town of Grand Island and City of Buffalo – to residents of Erie and Niagara counties, and elsewhere in the state, excluding New York City. It covered health outcomes diagnosed between 1990 and 2009.

Lung, bladder and total cancers were elevated among males and females, the review found, while esophageal cancer was elevated among males and uterine cancer among females. Two other types of cancer were elevated: oral cavity/pharynx cancer among males in the industrial corridor and leukemia among females in the Sheridan Parkside area.

Analyses of birth outcomes in the study area showed preterm births and total heart defects were elevated.

The findings prompted calls for action Tuesday by a local environmental group.

“Unfortunately, this study shows what we knew all along: Our community is suffering,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. “We need strong political leadership at all levels of government.”

Tonawanda Town Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana said that town officials will pursue answers and remedies.

“It certainly concerns us, as do the preliminary results that we got from the soil testing by Jackie James Creedon recently,” said Caruana. He was referring to tests performed by the Tonawanda Community Fund, which found contaminants related to foundry coke oven emissions in residential yards off River Road.

Town officials will attend the Health Department’s public meeting, Caruana said.

“We will also be encouraging the DEC and the EPA [federal Environmental Protection Agency] to follow up on these findings, to investigate the sources and remediate them,” said Caruana. Additional follow-up also will be pursued with the Health Department.

The review was conducted in response to community concerns about potential health effects from exposure to industrial emissions and motor vehicle traffic. Results of an air quality study by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, released in 2009, showed that concentrations of benzene and formaldehyde were much higher in the Tonawanda area than in other areas with industrial and urban monitoring data in the state, excluding New York City.

While the review compared a particular group of people as a whole to a group not living in the area of concern, “it cannot prove that a specific environmental exposure caused a specific health effect, and it cannot tell us anything about individual health problems,” the department’s summary states.

Although the kinds of chemical compounds detected in the air in the Tonawanda exposure area have been associated with some of these types of cancer – leukemia and pharynx – in other studies, other factors contribute to their development, according to the department.

“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,” the department stated.

The report is available at A public comment period runs through March 31.