North State Cancer Cluster: Part 2

Nov 18, 2008 11:45 PM

Judy McInturf reads a list people she knows in Oroville who have been diagnosed with or died from pancreatic cancer in the last four years.

Her husband, Hack, is one of the names.

"They spent weeks doing numerous tests," says McInturf. they had a lot of problems getting into the pancreas."

Another name, Del Whittier, who was a close friend of Hack and Judy's.

Bev was Del's wife.

"He said I want to keep going on our trailer trips, keep going fishing," Whittier says. "And I said is there anything you haven't done you'd like to do? And he said I just want to live and love you until I die."

The pancreas is a gland behind the stomach that helps digest food. Pancreatic cancer is considered a death sentence because less than 4 percent of those diagnosed live more than five years.

The number of pancreatic cancer diagonoses in Oroville nearly doubled from 12 to 23 between 2004 and 2005.

Now, the California Department of Public Health has launched an investigation to figure out what's caused the sudden increase. A report is due out very soon.

Cancer victims and their families say they're not looking for someone to blame. They just want some answers to figure out what's causing the outbreak and to know if future cases can be prevented.

The former Kopper's wood treatment plant in south oroville is a concern. Carciogens were found in ground water and soil back in the 1970s caused by chemicals used to treat wood.

Since then, the toxins have been contained by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hack, who was a Butte County supervisor, worked at Kopper's for two years before taking a job as a wood shop teacher at Oroville High School.

Del worked at a lumber mill next to Kopper's and he was a logger.

Both men worked with chemicals to treat wood most of their lives and rarely used protection like gloves.

"Nothing like that was ever considered," says McInturf. "You think about the insecticide they did in the orchards and the chemicals in the shop and at Kopper's. Those were not considerations. No one thought about that in those days."

The State Department of Public Health says it's highly difficult to pinpoint a commonality in so-called cancer clusters.

"It's a challenge," says Bonnie Sorensen of the Department of Public Health. "There's so many different contributors to cancer, not only our own lifestyle but toxins and chemicals have been found to instigate cancer."

Those who've been effected by the disease hope to learn something from this report. And whether or not concrete answers are found they think there should be more public awareness about dangerous chemicals.

"We need education about all the risk factors," Whittier says. "It could be pesticides, the air above the Sacramento Valley, who knows."

Public health officials plan to hold a meeting with the community and cancer experts to discuss the finding of the report. It should be complete in about one month.


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