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Warren County Advocates Dispute DOH Cancer Study

An archive photo of the former GE plant in Fort Edward. Advocates claim that PCBs released from GE's former facilities in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls have led to elevated instances of cancer in the region
Lucas Willard
An archive photo of the former GE plant in Fort Edward in Washington County. Advocates claim that PCBs released from GE's former facilities in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls have led to elevated instances of cancer in the region.

Advocates are challenging the findings of a 2019 New York State Department of Health assessment of cancer patterns in Warren County.

In November 2019, as part of an initiative by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Department of Health released a report that provided details on incidents of cancer in Warren County.

Concerns about cancer linked to industry in the region have persisted for years – the City of Glens Falls is just upriver from Fort Edward and Hudson Falls in neighboring Washington County, where believed-to-be cancer-causing PCBs were dumped by GE into the Hudson for decades.

But the DOH report, which examined data from 2011 to 2015, said an environmental investigation “did not show any unusual environmental exposures that could explain the elevated cancer incidence rates in Warren County.”

The report did suggest links between tobacco use, a higher proportion of overweight individuals, alcohol intake, and other factors to instances of a variety of cancers.

But on Thursday, advocates released their own study to dispute those conclusions by the DOH.

Dr. Paul Hancock, professor emeritus of economics at Bennington College, is a co-author of the study. He points out that the lifestyle patterns associated with certain kinds of cancer are not significantly higher in Warren County than other areas of the state, excluding New York City. The percentage of people who smoke, he says, for example, does not necessarily match up with the higher overall percentage of lung cancer cases.

“Smoking, obesity, and excessive drinking are related as causal factors to lung, laryngeal, and colorectal cancer – so all three of these factors we believe, however, contrary to the Department of Health are – and not only believe, but know – are at or below the median of all New York State counties, exclusive of New York City,” said Hancock.

Hancock, along with co-author Dr. David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University at Albany, and Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls chair Tracy Frisch, suggested environmental factors are behind elevated cancer rates.

Dr. Carpenter accused government agencies of ignoring the potential dangers of environmental factors like pollution.

“Environmental exposures as causes of cancers are uniformly ignored by our governmental agencies. Now, it is very difficult to prove that a certain exposure to a chemical causes cancer, but on the other hand, we have overwhelming evidence that that isn’t the case, and yet agencies ignore that,” said Carpenter

It was suggested Thursday that the amount of PCBs within the City of Glens Falls is unknown – with anecdotes shared of toxic PCB-laden oil and sediment once given away by GE, eventually filling backyards and coating roads throughout the surrounding region.

The new report calls the 2019 DOH study’s “lack of any serious discussion of the possible role of PCB exposure” in the region an example of blatant oversight.

Frisch doubts DOH’s willingness to dig deeper.

“I personally do not believe that the state Department of Health has the will or even the capacity to look at this in a multi-faceted way and really scrutinize the environmental factors. They have not proven that that is something that they are willing to do,” said Frisch.

Frisch hopes that the release of the study will eventually lead to action, though the report does not make specific recommendations.

The Department of Health responded, saying environmental factors including PCBs were addressed in its 2019 report.

The Department points to data from a study conducted by Dr. Edward Fitzgerald, saying the data were evaluated and summarized as follows:

“Air samples taken in the Glens Falls area in 2000 and 2002 showed that the average outdoor air PCB levels were low and within the range of levels reported for other research projects in the U.S. where there were no unusual sources of PCBs. Among the 22 industrial and inactive hazardous waste sites in Warren County that were evaluated, there were several that contained or had contained PCBs. The evaluation found no evidence suggesting that contamination from these sites was causing widespread exposures in Warren County that would account for the elevated cancer rates.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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