North State Cancer Cluster: Part 1

Nov 17, 2008 7:32 PM

The state report is due out any day now regarding an increase in one of the worst forms of cancer in Oroville: pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer diagonoses and deaths have nearly doubled in Oroville from an expected 12 cases to 23 from 2004 to 2005.

Now, the state is investigating and trying to figure out what's causing the sudden increase.

"(We're) looking to find if there's a common cause or a thread of commonality between these cases," says Bonnie Sorensen, deputy director of the Calfornia Department of Public Health.

Sorensen is leading a team of doctors from the Department of Public Health who are compiling a report on a possible "cancer cluster" that should be released within a month.

One part of their investigation is to determine if the former Kopper's wood treatment plant is to blame. Many believe chemicals used over the years there contributed to the increase in pancreatic cancer.

The Kopper's plant was designated a Superfund site in 1984 by the Environmental Protection Agency after pentachlorophenol was discovered in residential wells near the site used for drinking water. Arsenic, copper and dioxins were found in soil and groundwater which are all chemicals used in the wood treatment process.

A fire erupted at the plant in 1987.

Residents were evacuated and later tested for exposure to carcinogens.

More than 20 years later, the site has been closed and cleaned up to meet industrial use standands. But EPA officials say the ground water is still contaminated.

What's even more disturbing is the fact there's two more Superfund sites right next to Kopper's. The Louisiana Pacific Corporation, a former saw mill, and the Western Pacific Railroad yard. More than 10,000 residents live within a three mile radius of these sites.

Both sites have been closed, cleaned and delisted by the EPA, but officials say the concentration of Superfund sites is unusual.

"It's rare to see three in such a small city like Oroville," says Fred Schauffler, section chief for the California site cleanup branch of the EPA. "We do have other places where there are multiple superfund sites but they tend to be in bigger cities."

But health officials say that does not mean these sites are linked to the increased number of cancer cases.

"Because there is such a small number of cases, it could just be random," Sorensen says. "It's difficult to pinpoint one cause."

But one thing health and EPA officials are able to confirm is that the site doesn't pose a risk to anyone living nearby.

They also say the site is safe for workers who will return to this location soon now that a new business park is in the works.

Now all that's left to figure out is whether residents' worse fears from 20 years ago still hold true today.


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