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Cancer Cluster In St. Paul: Correlation Or Coincidence?

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Residents of a St. Paul neighborhood with higher than average cancer cases are wondering if it could be linked to nearby hazardous waste sites.

When Denise Gulner of St. Paul looks down her block, she knows of her neighbors’ struggles.

“We’ve got a house here that’s prostate cancer,” she said. “This one was cervical, this one was kidney.”

And the nearby grassy hill covers a story buried beneath.

From 1973 to 1984, a no-longer-existing company called Ecolotech operated out of the building and inside, the business reclaimed recycled waste from circuit boards of old computers.

But it was something outside of the building that had caught neighbor Kathy Zieman’s attention.

“I noticed some green ooze,” she said. “It might have been oil or something else coming out of the building.”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) got involved and found dozens of corroded and mislabeled barrels. Of the 30,000 gallons, many held hazardous material called metal-plating waste.

Steve Schoff, who works for the MPCA as the Superfund Program Project Manager, said the business was illegally storing and processing this waste.

At the time, the MPCA considered it one of the state’s worst hazardous waste sites. Ecolotech then got the Superfund title in 1984, meaning government dollars would be used to clean up the toxic materials.
Gulner remembers the process taking two years to complete.

“There were all these big dump trucks and then the guys came with the hazmat suits,” Gulner said.

Soon after that, she saw many of her neighbors get sick. In the eight homes on the block, 17 cancer cases have been recorded since the Superfund site has shut down – at least one in every home and some diagnosed in their 30′s and 40′s.

Gulner is one of them. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 33.

“It’s just too many people to be just a coincidence,” she said.

John Soler has spent years studying different cancer clusters with the Minnesota Department of Health’s Cancer Surveillance System.

He disagrees with Gulner and said there probably isn’t a connection. Soler understands hazardous waste sites will capture the public’s attention, but stressed that conditions such as race, diet and reproductive habits are looked at first.

“The man-made environmental pollutants are probably a lot more important in society’s mind than they actually are in reality,” Soler said.

He says another important factor to consider is the type of cancer in each home. In the case of this St. Paul neighborhood, there are 10 types. Breast cancer, bone cancer and brain cancer are the most common.

“When you have different cancers, it usually means different causes,” Soler said.

Soler points out that this part of St. Paul would have been on city water at the time, so beyond perhaps kids playing in the puddles of liquid or it mixing with rainwater in the street, the risk of exposure would have been low.

The neighborhood does have cancer numbers that are 8.8 percent higher than the state average.

“We know that 50 percent of Minnesotans will be diagnosed at some point in their lives with cancer, and that’s not randomly distributed,” Soler said. “So, you will see on one block what seems to a lot of cancers, and on the next block over you will see what seem to be no cancers, or very few cancers. And we see that all over the state.”

The state delisted Ecolotech as a Superfund site in 1988, and said it’s no longer considered a danger.

Currently, Minnesota has about 75 active Superfund sites. The list is always being updated as sites are added, while more than 170 places are no longer considered a health risk.

Checking out what’s in your neighborhood is easy. The MPCA has an online database to search for Superfund sites. View it by clicking here and scrolling down to the Superfund site in the Activity Type drop down menu.

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