Monday, May 5, 2008

Monticello lung cancer deaths 'elevated'

It's good news based on bad news: The Utah Department of Health has found that lung cancer deaths in the southeast Utah town of Monticello are "significantly elevated," a claim that residents here have been making for years.

Now members of the town's Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure (VMTE) committee are hoping the study results will persuade the federal government to help the beleaguered town. San Juan County commissioners are in Washington, D.C., this week, armed with the new data, lobbying for a bill that would provide funding for early detection health screening and treatment.

The U.S. government owned and operated the uranium mill in Monticello from the time it was built in 1941 until 2000, when the site was finally considered free of toxic materials following a Super Fund cleanup. For the first 19 years, the plant provided source materials for the U.S. atomic energy program — and produced toxic dust that blew across the town, landing on window screens and clotheslines. After the mill was closed, uranium tailings were used by unsuspecting residents in the mortar and foundations of their homes and in children's sandboxes.

Proving that exposure to the dust and tailings actually caused hundreds of cases of subsequent cancers is impossible, says state health department epidemiologist John Contreras. "There's no technology available that can tell you that," he says. But the new study shows that lung and bronchial cancers are significantly elevated compared to all lung and bronchial cancer deaths reported in the Utah Cancer Registry, and notes that lung cancer has risk factors associated with exposure to the contaminants.

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The elevated rates were found in three five-year time periods between 1973, the year the Cancer Registry began, and 2004. Stomach cancer rates were elevated in one time period only, so those results are considered inconclusive.

The health department study was based on 159 cancers diagnosed in Monticello. That's well shy of the 502 cancers (and over 100 cases of other serious illnesses) that VMTE member Barbara Pipkin has documented, but some of these were diagnosed prior to 1973 — including many of the leukemias — and some were diagnosed outside of Monticello, after residents moved away. "Even two miles away," says Pipkin.

To make the study an apples-to-apples kind of study, the health department restricted it to cancers diagnosed in Monticello. To include the others, Contreras says, "would have taken millions of dollars."

In a letter hand-delivered this week to officials at the U.S. Department of Energy, VMTE Chairman Steve Young of Monticello noted, "You cannot replace the lives lost, but you can begin to assist with the problems caused. ... It is time to act as the costs continue to compound and human lives are being lost."

Earlier this winter, says the VMTE's Pipkin, yet another Monticello resident died of leukemia.

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