HAMPDEN, Maine — Three officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention were in town this week to provide an update on the center’s effort to determine if a local neighborhood has a higher-than-normal cancer rate and, if so, why.
Town councilors voted in October of last year to ask the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate concerns expressed by resident Jim Barrows about what he believes is a higher-than-normal rate of cancer on a roughly mile-long stretch of Coldbrook Road, near the former Pine Tree Landfill.
Barrows said he has three different types of cancer and several members of his family also have been diagnosed with cancer. He first brought the matter to the attention of town officials in July 2002. Despite their efforts to get answers, neither he nor the town saw anything much in the way of a response until last fall.
Barrows said last fall that he knew of 15 people with some form of cancer residing, or who formerly resided, 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 the now closed Pine Tree landfill and several large transportation companies.
Barrows’ list of people diagnosed with cancer since then has grown to more than 40, he said recently. He said he suspects the cases could constitute a cancer cluster.
So far, however, state health officials say they have not found anything unusual about the number and types of cancer cases found along Coldbrook Road, said Dr. Molly Schwenn, director of the Maine Cancer Register, during a meeting with Town Manager Susan Lessard and Barrows. Also on hand were Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of Maine CDC, and Debra Wigand, director of the state center’s Division of Population Health.
“There is no peak in any cancer. There is a broad spectrum of many cancers,” Schwenn said of the cases she found in the state cancer registry database. She also said there were not any unusual occurrences of rare cancers or cancers found in unusually young victims.
To that end, Maine CDC has asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance and recommendations for what to do next, Schwenn said Tuesday during the roughly 90-minute meeting at the Hampden Municipal Building.
“I’m not done,” she said. “I wanted to meet anyway because time has passed and we have [received] directions or suggestions called in from the [federal] CDC and we’re waiting for the next round. Before we get those, we just wanted to tell you where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing.”
The federal CDC asked their state counterparts to map cancer cases and identify potential environmental issues. That work is now underway, she said.
Pinette told Barrows that despite communication problems in the past, state CDC officials are sympathetic to his concerns and now are working to address them.
“Our job is to look at cancer incidences and try to detect if there’s any patterns,” added Pinette. “Right now, although I know it feels hard to understand, we’re not seeing a pattern [indicating an environmental cause]. We did ask for [U.S.] CDC’s guidance. We’re working on that, providing data to them, and we’re going to keep working on that and we’ll give you feedback about that,” she said. “But our expertise isn’t how to deal with these other issues that are environmental.”
Maine CDC staff members also have been working with state toxicology, environmental and other experts as well as with town office staffers in their attempt to rule out any environmental causes.
Barrows said state health officials need to do more research into the Coldbrook Road cancer cases, adding that the state’s cancer database was not up to date and that it did not include cases involving residents who used to live there but moved out and were diagnosed elsewhere.
Lessard said she also wanted to know so she can answer any questions former residents might ask.
“The problem is this is like wrestling an octopus because there’s so many moving parts,” Lessard said. “We have a lot of people who have identified that they lived on Coldbrook Road during their life at some point. Mr. Barrows has provided a lot of those names but the pieces that for me are missing in order to be able to quantify that are how long [each of those former residents needed to have lived on the affected stretch of Coldbrook Road in order to be counted as part of the study.]”
Determining whether to include former Coldbrook Road residents, and which ones, will be among Maine CDC’s next steps, Schwenn and Pinette said. They said they would ask federal CDC for direction to that end.