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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009

County to study possible cancer cluster

Poolesville residents worry environmental causes could be responsible for rare sicknesses

by Meghan Tierney | Staff Writer

Some in the western upcounty have long wondered whether something in the environment was making their neighbors sick, citing what they perceive to be an unusually high number of cancers in their communities. They may soon have some answers — the county is conducting a cancer cluster study in Poolesville after residents raised concerns about the town's water.

Fred Kelly contacted the county Department of Health and Human Services after his wife Elizabeth, 39, was diagnosed with metastatic stage IV renal cancer in October. Her family has no history of cancer, and it seemed like lots of people on their street had battled with the disease in the five years they lived in the town.

Catherine Poss, a 15-year Poolesville resident and a Hempstone Avenue neighbor of Kelly's, has no family history of cancer and has never drank or smoked. She was shocked two years ago when her doctor told her she had adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer that affects the salivary glands. But she was even more surprised to learn that a woman on her street, who was in her 30s at the time, had received the same diagnosis about 14 years ago.

Poss, 45, said she hadn't considered that there could be a problem with the water until Kelly's wife got sick.

"The key to it is to see if there's a problem or not, and I'm not sure," said Kelly, 42.

A cancer cluster is a "greater than expected number of cases of similar cancers occurring in a short period of time among people who live or work near each other," according to information provided by Colleen Ryan Smith, senior epidemiologist at DHHS. Investigators evaluate information about cancer cases, and if there is an increase that is more than could be expected by chance, they look into possible causes.

The study is in the beginning stages, and there is no estimated completion date, Ryan Smith said. Study area boundaries are being determined, she said.

The county conducts cancer cluster studies on a complaint basis and averages about three a year, according to Dr. Ulder Tillman, county health officer. Tillman said the studies have not found anything unusual since she came to the county five years ago and that she did not know of any other studies in Poolesville.

In 2003, the most recent data available, 4,234 new cancer cases were reported in Montgomery County, according to the state health department's annual cancer report. The county had a cancer rate of 460.3 cases per 100,000 people, the sixth lowest in the state.

The Maryland Cancer Registry does not have cancer rates for specific parts of the county, according to Director Kimberly Stern.

Upcounty residents have long theorized about what could be causing what they perceive to be unusually high incidences of cancer, including three possible Dickerson culprits — the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility, a trash incinerator; Neutron Products, a nuclear facility and potential superfund site; and Mirant's coal-burning power plant, which has been fined by the state for emission violations.

Yet some residents say there is another cause for concern — naturally occurring alpha radiation-emitting particles in the town's water supply.

Tests to ensure Poolesville's water system was in compliance with new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards found high levels of radionuclide particles in some of its wells, which the EPA says can cause cancer in large doses over a long period of time. Those levels were below federal limits but merited further monitoring, town officials have said.

A recent sample for one of the wells showed radionuclide levels slightly over the limit, though more sampling is needed to determine compliance.  The town has budgeted $650,000 for remediation once the state makes its determination.

"We've set our standards to what the state and EPA sets," said Town Manager Wade Yost. "Our goal is to stay in compliance, at a minimum, and that's where we are at the moment."

Poolesville's water has never been out of compliance, according to town officials and Nancy Reilman, chief of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Safe Drinking Water Act Implementation Division.

There is little to no risk from drinking water with radionuclide levels below the standard, Reilman said. The health hazard level for alpha-emitting radionuclides ranges from 10 to 20 times over the limit, according to EPA spokesman Dale Kemery.

However, some residents question whether consuming any amount of a carcinogen is safe.

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