Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cancer Rates in Whatcom County

Radius from the Y-Road Landfill Site Inspection

An accompanying paper for this post is "Cancer Rates in Whatcom County".  It contains screenshots from NCI's State Cancer Profiles, particularly their micromap section (java interactive), that back up my statistical assertions below. Also, St. Joseph's annual cancer reports are informative.

There are those subjects that few want to talk about in Whatcom County.  Our high cancer rate is one of them. Cancer rates in Washington state are significant. Regrettably, Whatcom County, helps lead the  way in such significance.  This isn't  a subject that gets much play here.  The "new" Bellingham of ex-urbans, WWU parents and students, and the professional classes really don't want to discuss the fact that they are quite possibly raising or sending their children to the cancer capital of the West Coast. As you might imagine, neither  the "development class" or their political supporters want this information well-known.  Indeed we have a first class cancer treatment center here at St. Joseph's, although much of the childhood cancer is treated in Seattle.

Talking about the high cancer rates in Whatcom County doesn't make you  friends with anyone: not families, not developers, not government officials. But we should talk about it more.  In the past five years, many people that we know have contracted cancer. Five of them lived within a thousand feet of our home. One was a middle-aged health professional. She had a vibrant family, involved professional husband, and she passed away several years ago after battling off her first round of breast cancer.  Another was a nurse (breast cancer-survived). Another a grandmother (intestinal-survived). And the most recent was a family friend - a bright, 12 year old girl seemingly with everything going well for her in life - a beautiful family in a beautiful home; their lives now turned upside down by childhood leukemia. No one who has actively tracked cancer stats in Whatcom County should be surprised about such evidence. Whatcom County (est 2009 pop ~200K) averaged 998 incidences of cancer per for each year between 2003 - 2007 according to the National Cancer Institute.  998!  Without using age or other quantification, this could be construed to mean each of us here  has a 1 in 200 chance of contracting cancer each year.

What are some of the possible causes of toxic pollution in Whatcom County? Take your pick:
  • pollutants in the water supply
  • oil refinery effluent from two refineries
  • agricultural pesticides
  • at least two "treated wood" facilities
  • an ex- pulp plant town
  • an ex-chlor-alklai factory town
  • a reputedly sordid  history of toxics disposal with
  • small scale toxic landfills reputedly dotted around the county
  • an ex naval ship building town (WWII mine-sweepers)
  • an ex-coal mining town 
  • heavy diesel soot from the thousands of big rigs running supplies (e.g. lumber) from B.C. to CA on I-5
  • native population with terribly low Vitamin D levels in their blood
  • lots of smoke particulate in the winter from families who burn for heat
In truth, Whatcom County and Bellingham have a  toxic history that they have been trying to unwind, cover-up, or cover over for quite awhile (1). What can we do about this now?  I don't know. For just a few examples, there may be more mercury buried in Bellingham Bay than any other spot in the nation (2). There is a potentially toxic dump that exists in our watershed  for which there is some very critical environmental testing! (3)   At this point, an enlightened government and populace would be addressing the problem as best they could with preventative care and open discussion. How you do that is unclear to me, although some people have had ideas.  At some point soon, I hope we find the courage to start talking about this subject more openly.


Unknown said...

Unknown said...

You may be an excellent engineer, but lacking in epidemiology. Correlation is not necessarily causation. Although the concern may be valid. I wonder why the NW counties have elevated rates? All relatively small populations. Wood industry is now quite reduced from previous activity. Did those affected live here long or moved here since exposure? Your neighbors?

Ryan M. Ferris said...

Thanks, for your comment. Please refer to a second post I made on this subject at:

Lila Jo said...

Born and raised there, cancer extremely prevalent. Several people I grew up with passed from cancer. My high school class was of 60 so you know the numbers aren’t good. The other major problem in my opinion is the treatment of cancer patients. They are really quick to biopsy everything and also take drastic measures when the treatments are the actual cause iof death. They are killing people that don’t have to die. I know this as a lymphoma and breast cancer survivor. Alive because I left whatcom county for treatment. The biggest problem causing cancer there is pesticides sprayed on crops/berries etc. the sludge from dairy farms from cow manure. It rains and all of the crap and chemicals are in the soil and water supplies. Deadly combination. So, if cancer doesn’t kill you living there, the doctors will. If you are lucky enough to survive those two things, then you just have to dodge one of the worst methamphetamine problems in the entire country..