Two epidemiologists and a contaminant specialist say they believe an investigation should be done into whether there is a cancer cluster surrounding a former industrial site near Susquehanna University, a newspaper reported Sunday.
The Patriot-News of Harrisburg said it conducted an eight-month investigation into the history of the area around Weiser Run, a small stream in Selinsgrove that cuts between an old mill building and off-campus apartments.
In 2002, four Susquehanna University alumni died of aggressive cancers. None was older than 28, and two had lived in the same room.
Linda Kadel, the mother of one patient, told the paper that she sent more than 1,500 e-mails to recent alumni asking health questions and was startled by the number with cancer and other illnesses. Her son, Patrick, died of bone cancer.
The state Department of Health declined her request for a formal inquiry, concluding that there was not sufficient information to warrant one. The university conducted its own review and concluded that its students were safe.
“The cancers … there just seems to be more there than one might expect for a town and university of this size,” said Clifford P. Weisel, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
Weisel, a specialist in human exposure to contaminants, told the newspaper that the location “probably warrants a serious look by people who can understand clusters of cancers.”
“You have environmental contamination. You have known carcinogens. You have close proximity of the students to those carcinogens,” said Steven Browning, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky. “I think the case is pretty compelling that they had dermal, inhalation and possibly other types of exposure to known carcinogens.”
The newspaper, without access to an alumni list, identified 18 people who attended the school between 1990 and 2001 and developed cancer by age 30. During most of that time, university enrollment was usually fewer than 1,600 students. Many of the cancer-stricken alumni had ties to the off-campus area near Weiser Run, the paper said.
The newspaper said its investigation found that underground storage tanks had leaked hazardous fuel products into the soil on the far side of the stream. The tanks were removed in 1990, but extensive underground soil and groundwater contamination was measured around the tank site between 2002 and 2005. Nearly 1,500 tons of tainted soil was hauled away and incinerated.
An underground flow of contaminants toward the stream included benzene, a known carcinogen, the paper said. The newspaper said it took soil samples from the stream banks last summer and had them analyzed by an accredited laboratory, which found the presence of other harmful substances.
“Basically, there needs to be an investigation to see what the link could be,” said Kathy J. Helzlsouer, who teaches epidemiology and oncology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “I think there is a concern. There is an issue.”
Susquehanna University President L. Jay Lemons and Sara Kirkland, executive vice president for administration and planning, said recently that publicizing Kadel’s suspicions might harm the school and Selinsgrove.
“We have seen no evidence of a cancer issue,” Lemons said in an interview. “I wouldn’t live here if I didn’t think this town was safe.”
Kirkland said the school took Kadel’s suspicions seriously, consulting with industrial hygienists and engineers, checking environmental maps, discussing Kadel’s list with the Selinsgrove Borough manager – a trained environmental engineer – and inspecting cancer statistics for Snyder County, home to the university.
The school also hired a pathologist, Arthur McTighe, to review Kadel’s list, Kirkland said. The list showed a variety of breast, ovarian, testicular, blood and bone malignancies rather than a group of identical cancers, which is a stronger indicator of a problem.
“The risk factors for the different types of cancer … are distinct and different,” McTighe wrote. “… The occurrence of these various tumors in a population of students of the university is related most likely to chance alone.”
The state Health Department reviewed the matter last year. Michelle S. Davis, department deputy secretary for health planning and assessment, sent the letter to Kadel rejecting the idea of a formal inquiry. The paper said its effort to contact Davis, who has left the department, was unsuccessful.
Selinsgrove Borough Manager John Bickhart, who previously worked as an environmental engineer, said the borough’s water quality checks have not turned up anything suspicious.
“Tanks leak. They always have,” he said. He added that he has not “seen anything that would rise to the level of doing investigation further.”
Beyond its count of students, The Patriot-News said it documented 22 cancer cases among permanent residents in the part of Selinsgrove where Patrick Kadel lived.
Pete Rapciewicz, 28, who lives in Manhattan, was diagnosed with leukemia about three months after his 2000 graduation from Susquehanna. His junior and senior years, he visited his girlfriend near the mill site two or three times a week.
“What concerns me, is how many more potential students could be in jeopardy, at risk of getting sick,” he said.