Cancer spike found near Superfund site
Resident suspects vapors from TCE chemical could be to blame
A study released Monday finds a historical increase in cancer among residents of northeastern Mountain View, where a large plume of TCE has contaminated the soil and groundwater for decades.
Between 1996 and 2005 the report finds nearly twice the normal rate of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer that starts in the body's lymphatic system and quickly spreads. The Greater Bay Area Cancer Registry studied an area east of Shoreline Boulevard and mostly north of Central Expressway, comparing rates of TCE-related cancers to that of average rates in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. The registry found 31 cases of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, but expected only 17.
Rates of kidney and liver cancer were examined as well, but no "statistically significant" elevation in rates was found for those cancers.
The study was done at the request of Whisman Road resident Jane Horton. She lives in one of two homes near the plume which have shown elevated levels of TCE vapors in indoor air. Airborne vapors are the biggest danger for local residents, as the contaminated groundwater is not used for drinking.
The plume is bordered by Whisman, Ellis and Middlefield roads, known as MEW, and was left behind by early computer companies, including Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor, which used TCE as a solvent during manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s.
"This whole thing has been such a friggin' battle, to get homes tested, to get knowledge out into the community," Horton said. "Here is another piece of knowledge that should have been out there."
Horton says that when her son was suffering from health problems she attributes to TCE, the report would have come in handy when talking to his doctor, who said, "Oh, don't worry about it," referring to his TCE exposure.
Armed with such a report, "a doctor would put more credence in a parent concerned about a child's health," Horton said. Until the report came out, "We never had something to add to any credibility about living in a neighborhood with health risks."
According to a December 2009 EPA report, "TCE is carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure," and human health effects include kidney and liver cancer, lymphoma and various other reproductive, developmental and neurological effects.
Horton recalls that a device called an air stripper was used in the area to clean up the TCE until 2003, pumping groundwater to the surface so the TCE could evaporate. The Voice reported neighborhood concerns about a cluster of people living near the air stripper who suffered from Parkinson's disease and brain tumors. According to a cancer registry spokesperson, brain tumors are "not usually" associated with TCE. He said he could not comment on Parkinson's disease.
Horton said the air around the stripper was never tested before it was removed.
"It's important for people not to panic and conclude from this study that the TCE was responsible for the increase in counted cancers," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Mountain View-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight.
"I believe that it's wrong to associate the reported non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases with the Regional TCE plume, because there was almost no known exposure," Siegel told the Voice via email. "It's possible that there were emissions from the unscrubbed air strippers at the MEW Superfund area before 2003, but calculations based upon groundwater concentrations suggested otherwise, and no one ever sampled for them."
Horton said she hoped for legislation that would require such studies for areas where residents may be exposed to toxics. A registry spokesperson said such studies are not required by law but are often done at the request of citizens.
"It should be required," Horton said. "If you've got a cancer registry, what in the world are you doing with it if you aren't looking for trends? It is time for our laws to protect us and our health."
Email Daniel DeBolt at firstname.lastname@example.org