HAMPDEN, Maine — Town councilors unanimously agreed this week to ask the Maine Center for Disease Control to investigate what a local man believes is a higher than normal rate of cancer on a mile-long stretch of Coldbrook Road, near the former Pine Tree Landfill.
Resident Jim Barrows, who said he and several members of his family have been diagnosed with cancer, first brought the matter to the attention of town officials in July 2002.
Barrows said this week that he had not yet been diagnosed at the time. It was his brother’s cancer diagnosis a decade ago that got him thinking about cancer cases in his neighborhood. His own diagnoses came less than three years ago, he said.
At that time, Barrows said, he knew of 15 people with some form of cancer living on the section of Coldbrook Road that runs from H.O. Bouchard Inc. to Coldbrook Equestrian. There are 20 households within that span, he said. Nearby are a former landfill and several large transportation companies. Barrows said Monday that his well had been tested and that the water quality was determined to be “fine.”
Dr. Molly Schwenn, director of the Maine Cancer Registry, noted in a March 2010 email to Hampden town officials that cancer data from the Maine Cancer Registry showed that the cancer rate for Hampden was “similar to that of Penobscot County but higher than the state as a whole.” Schwenn said that while state health officials found the common kinds of cancer they expected to find in Hampden and elsewhere in Maine, they also noted that colorectal cancer was occurring in a younger age distribution than expected, possibly due to familial disposition.
Schwenn indicated at the time that she planned to meet with Barrows, recommend that wells in the affected area were tested and promote colorectal cancer screening.
Barrows said Monday that those things did not occur and that he recently took his concerns to Rep. Brian Duprey, who now is pursuing the matter in Augusta. The state representative’s wife, Town Councilor Carol Duprey, asked that the matter be discussed at the council meeting on Monday, Oct. 7.
On Thursday, Schwenn said she had not yet received any recent communication from Hampden town officials and deferred a specific response about any possible new development there until then. She did, however, offer the following:
“I can state that Mr. Barrows’ concerns about cancer in his community and affecting his family are real, although we have found no indication that this is a true cancer cluster,” she said. “His concerns are similar to concerns expressed in other Maine communities where we have not found indications of true clusters.”
Councilor Duprey initially proposed that the town commission an independent survey of current and former residents to see how many of them had cancer.
“I’m not saying I know what’s the best way to proceed,” Carol Duprey said. “I just think that it’s definitely worth looking into in some way, whether it’s a survey where we survey people who have lived there 10 years ago until now or a survey of a larger part of Hampden. I just think it’s worth looking into if for nothing else to know if there’s a problem. … There may be no way to figure out what the problem was but I think that we, as a town, owe it to the people who live here. If there’s a problem in the town we’ve got to try to figure out what it is.”
Councilor William Shakespeare asked Barrows on Monday what he wanted the state to do.
Barrows said he wanted the state to determine if there was an underlying cause for what he sees as an elevated cancer rate on his road.
“What about people moving into the town? Don’t they deserve to know?” he said, adding that longtime residents likely wouldn’t move out of the neighborhood but that young people considering moving there should be aware of any health risks that might exist. “I just think somebody needs to step up to the plate and find out.”
Collecting cancer data
In Maine, cancer trends are analyzed by the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, which maintains the Maine Cancer Registry. The registry is a statewide population-based cancer reporting system. The registry collects information about most newly diagnosed and treated cancers in Maine residents from treatment providers.
The data is used to monitor and evaluate cancer incidence patterns in Maine and to develop a better understanding of cancer, identify areas in need of public health interventions and improve cancer prevention, treatment and control.
According to the registry’s Web page, most local cancer rates appear high because cancer is common. One out of three people in the United States and in Maine will develop cancer during his or her lifetime.
Each year more than 8,000 Maine residents are diagnosed with invasive cancer and more than 3,100 die of the disease, according to the registry’s Web page.
State health officials also noted that in those rare situations in which a local rate does appear to be higher than they expect, pinpointing a specific cause rarely is possible because:
— Cancer takes a long time to develop. It is hard to go back and reconstruct what people may have been doing that long ago.
— Many things can cause cancer and any one case of cancer likely has several causes.
— Cancer clusters usually have only a few cases. Studies that determine causes of diseases usually require hundreds of cases.
On Thursday, Schwenn noted that the only confirmed cancer cluster in Maine was in Fairfield, where an investigation found an elevated rate of an uncommon type of cancer, specifically brain tumors, among people ages 15-44, a lower than expected age group, for the period of 1990-2000. According to published reports, the cancer was connected to the former Central Maine Disposal Corp., a landfill that was cited numerous times for illegal disposal of hazardous substances, including dioxin.
“The Registry has done some cancer database follow-ups on Fairfield since the original report in 2001,” Schwenn said in an email. “In the case of Fairfield, Maine and in other states throughout the U.S., true clusters are rarely identified and generally have not been associated with environmental agent(s),” she said.
Given the complexity of the issue, Hampden councilor Jean Lawlis said she didn’t think the town had the expertise to determine whether the rate of cancer on Coldbrook Road is out of line with the rest of the area but noted that given the increase Barrows said he had seen, it was worth asking state health officials to take another look.
“From what I hear it sounds like there’s increasing evidence,” she said in making a motion to ask Rep. Duprey and Sen. Andre Cushing, both of Hampden, to take the issue to state officials and to invite a representative of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention to the council’s next meeting.
“I know that cancers take time to develop so it may be worthwhile asking the agency to update their analysis and look at new cases that are being reported and see if they still think that there’s not a factor,” Lawlis said. “I understand that there are certain kinds of cancer associated with environmental [factors]. … I think that’s the best we could do because we are outside our area of expertise.”