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Among the folks who live in Hickory Woods, the stories of cancers, asthma and birth defects are well-known and far too frequent.

They all know the story of Matthew Blake, the 5-year-old boy born with birth defects and blindness.

And the story of Diane Radder and her two-year battle with breast cancer.

Residents also know their homes sit on land contaminated with lead, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- three substances known to cause serious health problems in humans.

What they suspect, but don't know for certain, is a link between the soil contamination and the illnesses permeating their small South Buffalo neighborhood.

"That's the big question," said John Vena, a professor of social and preventive medicine at the University at Buffalo. "I don't think anyone knows the answer, but the residents have legitimate questions that need to be answered."

Vena, an epidemiologist and director of UB's Environment and Society Program, has reviewed the soil and water test results released last year by the Environmental Protection Agency. The level of contamination in some areas of Hickory Woods is high enough to cause serious concern, he said.

Even state health officials, who often are criticized for being too cautious, have warned of the health risks posed by several hot spots.

No one has proved a cause-and-effect relationship between the soil contamination and the illnesses, but several homeowners claim a link in their multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the city.

"It's a very sick community, sicker than a lot of communities," said Richard Lippes, a lawyer for dozens of homeowners. "We're seeing a lot of respiratory problems, a lot of asthma, a lot of cancer cases and a lot of developmental problems."

It's impossible to walk the streets of Hickory Woods without coming across a family with serious health problems. Some of the families, most notably the Blakes, have spoken publicly about the risks of living in a contaminated neighborhood.

Jennifer and Patrick Blake are suing the city for $290 million, claiming the soil, water and air contamination caused their son's health problems. Matthew was born with birth defects and is legally blind.

The Blakes are not alone.

Dolores Guadagno, a lifelong resident of Hickory Woods, has battled colon cancer since 1999. She is the third member of her family to develop cancer. Her father died of lung cancer in 1979, and her mother had uterine cancer before dying of other causes last year.

"There's plenty of it around here," Guadagno said of the cancer in her neighborhood. "We could go on and on."

No one has tracked the cancer rate at Hickory Woods, but the state Health Department has monitored cancers for the much larger ZIP code area around the neighborhood.

Lung cancer is an anomaly

The data, which takes into account age and population size, indicates that the instances of breast and colorectal cancers are either below or within the expected number for that specific ZIP code area.

The one exception was the number of lung cancers among women, which was 33 percent higher than expected.

Even more common than cancer are the reports of respiratory problems, nausea and constant lethargy.

Joseph McLeod, a Buffalo police officer, bought his house in 1997 and quickly saw his dream home turn into a "hellhole." He and his wife, Karen, and their three children are constantly tired and sick.

"Once you get away from here for a few days, you feel great," McLeod said. "It's definitely a factor. Something in the neighborhood is affecting people's health."

The fear and uncertainity among residents is widespread. No one knows if the contamination caused their illnesses, but the mere possibility is driving them from the neighborhood.

"Something's wrong here, no doubt in my mind," said Jim Montroy, a resident for more than 10 years. "I'm not looking for money. I just want my health back."

Montroy had several nodules removed from his lung six years ago, about the same time his wife, Debbie, had a miscarriage. He still suffers from respiratory problems.

"It got to the point where I couldn't even walk upstairs," he said. "Moving to Hickory Woods changed my life. I love this house. I had it built the way I wanted. But now I just want out of here."

None of the experts involved in Hickory Woods will, at this point, declare a definite link between the contamination and the illnesses.

PAHs are most prevalent

What they will do is point to the type of contamination found there and the elevated levels of those substances as cause for concern.

"It's perfectly legitimate for residents to raise questions about their health," said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., a chemistry professor and associate dean at UB. "We know the contamination levels are high. We know these substances are toxic. We also know PAHs are carcinogenic to humans."

All three of the substances found at Hickory Woods -- lead, arsenic and certain types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs -- are considered known or probable carcinogens.

Of the three, the most prevalent contaminant at Hickory Woods is PAHs, which are actually a group of more than 100 chemicals formed during the burning of coal, gas, oil or other organic substances.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that some PAHs may cause cancer and that laboratory tests of animals have shown a link to birth defects.

Stephen U. Lester, science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a national advocacy group, reviewed the EPA results and found many of them well above the government's own standards for residential living.

Though Lester stopped short of declaring a link between the contamination at Hickory Woods and the illnesses there, he did make it clear that homeowners are at risk.

"The presence of these contaminants in soil pose a range of risks to the people living in this neighborhood," he said in a letter to the homeowners. "In my opinion, based on the testing results that have already been taken, no one should be living in this neighborhood."

State report is due soon

Vena agrees that the elevated levels of arsenic, lead and PAHs raise questions about the health risks to residents. He thinks the state Health Department needs to determine whether residents were, in fact, exposed to those hot spots.

"There are obviously some areas with very high levels of this stuff," he said, "and the exposure pathways for people in the community need to be carefully reviewed by the Health Department."

State health officials will offer their opinion on the health risks to residents in a report due out soon.

The report, known as a Health Consultation, will document the contamination levels at Hickory Woods and offer some conclusions on whether people have been exposed and what harm that exposure might mean to residents.

In late 1999, the state released a similar Health Consultation on Hickory Woods. The report identified high levels of PAHs at several unfenced lots that "have posed and continue to pose a public health hazard for children and adults living adjacent to the properties."

A year later, the state reviewed a separate round of tests by the EPA and found the risk from exposure to those areas of the neighborhood was small. Health officials did, however, advise residents to take precautions to limit their contact with soil.

As it often does in studies like this, the state Health Department's role in Hickory Woods has come under attack by residents and their advisers.

Gardella, the UB professor, recently sent a letter to the state suggesting it lacks credibility because of its lack of openness when dealing with residents. For that reason alone, he and others are skeptical about the upcoming report.

"I'm not expecting much," added Lippes. "They rarely provide a definitive answer. It would be nice if they did, but I'm not expecting it."

State health officials declined to comment, except to say that the analysis will be honest and responsible.

"The information and results are gathered in the most scientific manner we have this day and age and then studied and restudied and verified by experts in the field," said Health Department spokesman Joe Rohm.

The report is due out next month.

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