Although August is usually a laid back month, many Port residents were aroused to a panic on August 21 when Newsday reported that a New York State Department of Health (NYS-DOH) study "found that women living near landfills were at an elevated risk for two kinds of cancer" - leukemia and bladder cancer. People immediately called the Town of North Hempstead to voice their concerns about their property values, the safety of Schreiber and Weber schools, the viability of reopening Salem School, and, most importantly - their health. Residents living east of Port Washington Boulevard and close to the former landfill were more worried than those living in other parts of Port. Officials and other people who have examined the actual study document are much less concerned, however, if at all. Town Supervisor May Newburger and State Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli have both advised people not to panic. They point out what the report's authors also say: The study was too small to raise anything but questions and the Port Washington landfill has been closed since 1983. Now, all potentially carcinogous ground gases are trapped, burned, and safely vented out a perpetually operating smokestack.
In her letter to the editor, printed in this issue of the Port Washington News, May Newburger stated, "The Newsday article . . . did a great disservice to all of us by sensationalizing the issues and glossing over the facts." The Port Washington News has therefore attempted to provide some "facts," as they are known today.
The news in the report that had residents most upset was that women living near landfills had a four-fold increased risk of getting leukemia and bladder cancer. The study did not find an increased risk for men, nor did it find an increased risk for either sex in getting the five other cancers studied: non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, liver, lung, kidney or brain cancer. Dr. James Melius, who designed the NYS-DOH study, speculated that women had a higher cancer incidence rate because they were likely to be home more than men and therefore exposed to the carcinogenic gases more.
The incidences of these cancers were examined because they are linked to organs and systems that are most likely to be affected by environmental contaminants. Landfills often emit methane and other chemicals called volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). These VOCs include vinyl chloride, trichloroethene, benzene, xylene, and toluene. Under certain conditions, methane will travel underground to other areas, carrying the VOCs with it. When these gases rise through soil into a new area, the term used to describe the process is off-gassing. In the early 1980s such off-gassing caused three or four explosions in houses near Port Washington's landfill, including the then-home of Ellen Markowski, who is now Supervisor Newburger's assistant.
According to Dr. James Melius, who no longer works for the NYS-DOH but who helped design and obtain funding for the study when on staff, the NYS-DOH first decided to conduct the cancer link study because of problems in Port Washington. In addition to the explosions, in the early 1980s, Port also had pockets of what appeared to be unusually high incidences of several types of cancer, including breast cancer. This study did not measure the incidences of breast cancer because previous studies had already been conducted, and no correlation to environmental factors were found. Melius said funding for the project came from a federal grant.
Even though Port's problems were the impetus for the study, 37 other landfills were also studied so as to get more data on the studies' central question: Does living near a landfill increase a person's risk of getting seven kinds of cancer?
When asked if Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington had been instrumental in lobbying for this study, Residents' Vice President Curt Trinko said that the environmental organization could claim no credit even though it actively fought to close the landfill and stop the construction of the incinerator. Trinko confessed he didn't realize the study had been conducted until he read about the results in Newsday. Pat VanDusen, likewise claimed no credit for the Port Washington Community Action Council. Judith Enck of NYPIRG also said she didn't know who lobbied for the study. Trinko pointed out that the NYS-DOH has the authority to initiate a study at its own discretion.
NYPIRG does claim credit for the report being released, however. According to Judith Enck, NYPIRG's senior environmental associate, NYS-DOH had been completed several years ago and was sitting on a shelf. People were issued copies of the report if they requested it, but the NYS-DOH did nothing to announce or publicize it. Enck said that NYPIRG staff found and read the report, and then decided the public should be advised of the landfill health threat. Ms. Enck therefore released a copy of the study to Newsday, which reported a brief summary of the results in its August 21 issue, with the alarming title, "Landfills, Women's Cancer Linked." Ms. Enck said the NYS-DOH responded to the leak by officially releasing the report later that day, complete with a press release summarizing and analyzing the study results.
When asked why NYS-DOH waited until then to release the report, Claire Popisil of its Public Affairs Group said that it took an unusually long time for the NYS-DOH to complete the report because staff had to first analyze the results, then write about them, then send the report to the funding agency for approval, then make corrections, etc.
This paper sent questionnaires to three NYS-DOH staff members, in addition to Ms. Popisil, to query them on the report delay, as well as about the study's methodology, findings, analysis, and raw data on Port Washington. As of press time, they had not responded by phone or facsimile machine. It is possible that some of them were away on vacation. Dr. James Melius, who, as mentioned above, no longer works for NYS-DOH, was the only person who worked on the project to respond. He noted that all the results for the study were in, after 18 months, in 1995.
The Newsday article had so upset Wendy Cohen that she obtained a copy of the complete report for herself, as well as for Port Washington Schools Superintendent Albert Inserra and School Board President Robert Scheer. Ms. Cohen discussed study flaws with Superintendent Newburger because she was concerned that her house's value would go down and that the Salem School probably shouldn't be reopened because its proximity to the old landfill might make it unsafe for children. Ms. Cohen also reported that TV news Channel 12 had done a short piece on the landfill/cancer scare. Port's old landfill was the topic of a 60 Minutes report back in the early 1980s. It was also the first landfill to be named a superfund site.
When civic leaders were asked about their reaction to the report and how it would affect their future plans, their answers varied, but most of them hadn't studied the report closely enough to make a definitive statement. NYPIRG's Judith Enck was the only person interviewed by this paper who said the study was well-designed and that the state should therefore take action to correct problems found and that it should better inform the public of its findings. Ms. Enck has worked as an environmentalist for NYPIRG for over 10 years. She has a BA in history and political science.
School Board President Robert Scheer said that both he and Superintendent Albert Inserra had received copies of the report and that he was having copies made for the rest of the board. Neither man has had time to carefully examine the report yet, however. If the board decides it would like to use the Salem School for instruction again, it will probably hire an outside expert to review the study and schedule a public meeting to discuss the issue.
Residents' Curt Trinko said that his organization has no official comment on the study at this time. Residents does not want to take rash action. Trinko also said that the CAC has state funding which allows it to hire outside experts; so the CAC will probably hire a scientist to carefully analyze the report.
Pat Van Dusen, a founding member of the CAC, said she was not yet familiar with the study, but that she was also no longer concerned about the health effects of the landill. She considers it safe now.
Tom Bensen of the Highfields Civic Association said that their organization has not met since the report was released, but they'll probably discuss it in the fall. Sheryl Chuzmir, a member of the North Salem Civic Association, likewise said that she wasn't aware of any civic associations formally reviewing the report at this time. She also thought her neighborhood was too far from the landfill to be concerned.
The founders of the Lauri Strauss Leukemia Foundation were asked to also comment on the study because leukemia was cited in the study as being one of two cancers possibly caused by the VOCs, and because Lauri Strauss discovered her deadly leukemia while living in Port (on the western side of town, not near the landfill). Evelyn Strauss and Julie Safran reported that they had not studied the results carefully enough to comment yet and that they would probably ask one of their medical advisors to evaluate the report. Julie had already discussed the report with Supervisor Newburger.
Both Supervisor May Newburger and NYS State Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli did take time to read the study, however, and their basic conclusion is, "Don't panic." Some of their criticisms of the study are as follows:
The study's summary pointed out that the researchers had no data to indicate whether the people diagnosed with cancer had just moved into the area or if they had lived in the supposed exposure area for a long time.
Assemblyman DiNapoli's office points out that only 11 cases of the supposedly two "significant" cancers were found near all 38 landfills. There were 6 cases of bladder cancer and five cases of leukemia. Both Newsday and the study summary reported that there was a four-fold increase in bladder cancer and leukemia in the buffer zone near the landfill, but there were still only 11 cases altogether. Furthermore, we don't know if any of those cases were near the Port landfill.
The study summary also emphasized that the age and conditions at each of the landfills varied. Some of the landfills had been poorly designed over 30 years ago; others, like Port's, were relatively new (Port's opened in 1974) and technologically superior to some of the others.
The study examined the incidences of cancer in buffer zones next to the landfills that varied in size. Most were 250 feet from the landfill; three were 500 feet; and one, Port Washington's, was 1000 feet. Cancer statistics in these buffer zones were then compared to statistics in the rest of the area sharing that zip code. Some people questioned the fairness of comparing different sized buffer zones and different sized zip code areas. Pat VanDusen estimated that the 1000-foot buffer zone would include approximately 15 houses on Wakefield Avenue and that it would also include parts of Flower Hill and Salem.
This paper asked the NYS-DOH to supply us with statistics specific to the Port Washington area so we could find out how many cancer cases were reported in our area and what their percentage of the local population was. As of press time, our query was not answered. Rosemary Konatich from Assemblyman DiNapoli's office, however, reported that the NYS-DOH had told her that it could not provide local statistics.
Possibly one of the most important paragraphs in the study is the one that states, "This study does not provide us with information about health risks related to living near landfills today." Spokespersons for both May Newburger and Tom DiNapoli emphasize that Port's landfill has been closed since 1983 and has a state-of-the-art gas barrier and collection system that is monitored daily. The gas collection is based on a vacumn system that actually sucks the gases out of the landfill, thus preventing any ground migration. Even if the landfill once harbored dangerous gas carcinogens, officials claim they are no longer a threat today.
It should be noted that this study only examined the effects of underground gases seeping up through the soil. It did not address the possible effect of airborne gases. The horrible odor that residences smelled in the early 1990s came from airborne hydrogen sulfide created by the decomposition of gypsum, plaster board and other building materials that were erroneously placed on top of the landfill. Although noxious to the nose, the fumes were not considered carcinogous or otherwise hazardous to health.
So What's Next? Curt Trinko said Residents has already invited NYS-DOH representatives to come to Port Washington to discuss the test results at a public meeting in September or October.
On August 31, NYS Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli sent a letter to the NYS-DOH Commissioner of Health, Dr. Barbara A. DeBuono, requesting additional follow-up studies and reviews "as soon as possible."