Thursday, June 24, 1999

Fernald health concerns increase

Study finds more cancer than norm

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        People who lived near the Fernald uranium processing plant are still developing some forms of cancer at higher-than-expected rates even though the plant closed years ago, according to a medical report released Wednesday.

        High rates of urinary cancers, melanoma and prostate cancer were reported in a “preliminary” analysis of more than 8,500 Fernald neighbors who have participated in a court-established medical monitoring program. The analysis was conducted by University of Cincinnati researchers.

        And according to a separate study released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), radiation emitted from the site could cause an elevated incidence of leukemia among people who lived within 6.2 miles of the site while it was operating between 1951 and 1988.

        “When it comes to real cases of people dying, there's no denying that,” said Bob Hanavan, who represents residents of the Fernald Health Effects Subcommittee. “I feel kind of vindicated by these numbers.

        “It's real obvious to people living around here that something is terribly wrong.”

        These reports significantly expand the types of health risks that may be associated with the Fernald plant. Activists have contended for years that Fernald is linked to a variety of illnesses. But until now, the only health risk experts have linked to Fernald has been lung cancer.

        “We're always apprehensive when we hear there's a little higher incidence of this and of that ... we've been saying for 15 years that this was the case,” said Lisa Crawford, founder of Fernald Residents For Environmental Safety and Health.

        “So while it's still painful and we hate to hear it, we expect it. We're kind of shock-proof at this point.”

        To experts, the new data on kidney and bladder cancers represented the strongest possible link to Fernald, in part because the statistics held up against several tests and because studies at other nuclear weapons sites have found similar results.

        “I must say I was a little surprised. This definitely needs to be explored further,” said Dr. Robert Wones, project director for the Fernald medical monitoring program. “If there was any bias in the study, it was that we looked at a population that was at least as healthy or possibly a little healthier than normal. So to find any increase (in cancer rates) is particularly remarkable.”

        Although that study does not say the additional cases of cancer found were caused by contamination from Fernald, studies along those lines are ongoing.

        The CDC estimated last year that more than 80 additional cancer deaths will occur among people living near Fernald when it was operational than in comparable population groups elsewhere.

        The CDC study also indicates there may be more cases of leukemia resulting from Fernald contamination.

        “We're kind of going at this from two different angles,” said the CDC's Owen Devine. “But these are both pieces of the same puzzle.”

        The Fernald plant, about 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati near Ross, Ohio, opened in 1953 to process uranium ore into materials to make atomic bombs.

        Production stopped in 1989 after a series of controversies about off-site contamination. Ever since, Fernald has been the focus of health studies, lawsuits and a multibillion-dollar cleanup effort.

        Wednesday's report, presented in Harrison at an evening meeting of the Fernald Health Effects Subcommittee, comprised the first data ever made public from the medical monitoring program. The program was established in 1990 as part of a $78 million settlement of a class action lawsuit filed by plant neighbors.

        The report focused on new cases of cancer diagnosed after people joined the monitoring program. People who already died of cancer or had been diagnosed with cancer before the program started were not included.

        For urinary system cancers, the researchers expected to find 13 cases. They found 22. For melanoma, researchers expected to find 6.4 cases. They found 11. For prostate cancer, 25.6 cases were expected. They found 39.

        To residents and others who have been concerned about radioactive and chemical pollution from Fernald, Wednesday's report added strength to their long-held views.

        “It says that Fernald was a serious problem and the people that pooh-poohed it were wrong,” said Cincinnati attorney Stanley Chesley, who represented neighbors in the class-action lawsuit.

        Fairfield resident Ann Burwinkel lived on a 82-acre family farm, about 1,800 feet northwest of the plant, from 1967 to 1993. She raised four children there.

        She recalls many mornings in the late 1960s and early 1970s when she arose to find her white Rambler station wagon coated with unidentified black dust from Fernald's nighttime smokestack emissions.

        “We're all fine right now. But who knows what might happen down the road? If something ever does happen, you know who I'm going to blame,” Mrs. Burwinkel said.

        Wednesday's UC study does not address whether Fernald pollution actually caused the higher cancer rates. However, Dr. Wones said the urinary cancer data raised the sharpest questions.

        That's because the excess rates were clearly statistically significant, even after comparing them to four different populations (the United States, Iowa, Ohio, and a grouping of Butler, Warren and Clermont counties).

        Also, the local urinary cancer data seems consistent with studies at other weapons plants.

        The possible Fernald links to the melanoma and prostate cancer data appear weaker, Dr. Wones said.

        After presenting the medical monitoring program findings, Dr. Wones said, the next step will be to consider more research to determine whether Fernald or other factors caused the excess cancer cases.

        Enquirer reporter Rachel Melcer contributed to this report.


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