John and Nicolette Weber were horrified to learn they live in a neighborhood — including parts of Buffalo's East Side and western Cheektowaga — where a higher-than-normal percentage of residents have had six different types of cancers.
But they are relieved that the state Department of Health is investigating.
The Health Department has found elevated incidences of colorectal, esophageal, kidney, lung, oral cavity and prostate cancer in a contiguous section of East Buffalo and western Cheektowaga, based on data the state collected from 2011 to 2015.
The Webers were among about 60 people who attended a public meeting Thursday night at the Buffalo Museum of Science to learn more about the Health Department's study.
John Weber said he became less alarmed upon learning that there are many areas across the state where there are incidences of elevated levels of different types of cancer and that the area where he resides is not some statistical anomaly.
"But, then again, I'm concerned because there 200 areas with higher rates of cancer," he said. "Part of me feels better that they're investigating this area out of all the areas that they could investigate, so maybe we will get some answers. But it still makes me less comfortable about living here."
According to Brad Hutton, the state's deputy commissioner for public health, the study area is bound at the north and west by the Kensington Expressway, the Thruway to the east and Walden Avenue at the southern end.
However, the study is less about geography than it is about multiple factors that may explain cancer patterns in that specific geographical area, he said.
"A person's risk for cancer is much more complicated than their residential address," Hutton said. "That's just the area where we are going to focus our attention and try to understand reasons that cancer rates might be different."
The local study area identified by the state is one of four communities across the state that were selected because they have elevated rates of the same six types of cancers.
The three other areas are located in Warren County, Staten Island and Suffolk County. They were all chosen for the study based on their ranking in the New York State Cancer Registry, which by law collects information on all New Yorkers who receive a cancer diagnosis.
"We're conducting a study to better understand what are the factors that might be contributing to help explain those increased rates in those areas," said Hutton.
"...Instinctually, people go to an environmental cause as explaining cancer," Hutton said. But he noted that "one's cancer risk has to do with your family and personal history, your personal lifestyle factors."
While many at Thursday's meeting were aware of that, others expressed concerns about the possibility of an environmental cause for the elevated levels of the specific types of cancers identified by the state in the study area in Erie County.
Carolette Meadows was raised in the study area, but currently lives in the Kaisertown neighborhood. Meadows said she was motivated to attend the public meeting after she had observed how the state's cancer map overlapped with one conducted for a study on lupus in the same approximate community that includes portions of Buffalo's East Side.
"So I wanted to know if they planned on looking at and analyzing those maps with the other disease processes that are going on in those neighborhoods, in those ZIP codes," she said.
Meadows said it seemed to her that the state's cancer study is overlooking other diseases and types of cancers that are affecting people living in that area.
"The two things that all of those have in common were East Ferry and Grider (streets) and the (former) American Axle plant. East Ferry and Grider has PCBs and POCs (organochlorine pesticides) found there, in addition to the lead, and they still put low-income housing there," said Meadows.
"It's only partially remediated. There are still areas that were left with very high contaminant levels of lead," she added.
Meadows also expressed concern the state health department has no plans for door-to-door community outreach as part of the study.
"It's kind of hard to say, if not impossible, we want community input, but no one from the community knew about this, and you're not putting people in the community to speak to people," Meadows said.
Smoking or smoking guns
In addition to genetics, Hutton said other factors like smoking contribute to the elevated rates of the six specific cancers found in the area.
"It's likely that smoking, and the fact that we have high rates of smoking, are playing a large role in at least four of the six cancers that we're talking about. We're certainly going to evaluate the extent to which environmental causes could be contributing, especially something like lung cancer where there's some evidence that outside air emissions and air quality can play a role," said Hutton.
Ronald Rambally, a pharmacist who lives near the Cleveland Hill Elementary School, next to the Thruway, asked Hutton if the state had identified any specific airborne carcinogens or those that might be found in the ground in the area.
"They said that they're monitoring air quality but I'm not sure that I saw it really tied into their study," Rambally said. "It's unclear to me whether they were now going to take a look and see if that's one of the cancer causing factors."
Hutton, however, insisted that the state's findings are much more complicated than identifying just one environmental smoking gun.
"The most alarming statistic for me is that cancer is incredibly common. One in two men and one in three women who live to be age 85 will be diagnosed with cancer. That's across the state. So we have 200 communities in different parts of the state that have an elevation of some type of cancer type," said Hutton.
"We're focusing on this community area because there are six cancers that are all elevated within it, but cancer is a concern across the state," he said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has charged the Health Department with completing its initiative within a year of when the study was first announced last October.
"We're on an aggressive time frame to complete our investigation by the end of this calendar year," Hutton said. "We'll be back in this community later in the year to share the results."