No conclusions from cancer map

The state’s interactive cancer map shows the number of 23 kinds of cancers found in people living in certain areas from 2003 to 2007 and identifies ‘environmental facilities’ in or near these areas. But the county health commissioner says conclusions should not be drawn from this initial raw data.

The State Department of Health has just released what is described as the nation’s first-ever statewide cancer map.

The map shows the number of cases of 23 kinds of cancers among people living in certain areas from 2003 to 2007 and identifies potential cancer risks such as hazardous waste generators, petroleum bulk storage and commercial pesticide sellers. The interactive map is currently posted on the state health department’s website.

For example, the map indicates that in an area north of Sound Avenue and just south of Naugles Drive in Mattituck, along Mattituck Creek, 26 people were diagnosed with cancer from 2003 to 2007. The top three cancers occurring among the 655 people living in that area at the time were prostate (5 cases), bladder (5) and lung (3). A landfill, a wastewater discharge site and an inactive hazardous waste disposal site are identified on the map within a two-mile radius of the designated area.

According to the health department’s website, the information on the map is simply raw data that “may be able to suggest that additional research should be considered,” and immediate conclusions should not be drawn without further study.

“A map cannot prove that something in the environment, including emissions from environmental facilities, causes cancer,” says that website. “We don’t know if the people with cancer lived in the area for five or 40 years, or if they breathed, ate, drank or touched any cancer-causing releases from these facilities. We also don’t know anything about their individual risk factors for cancer.”

Dr. James Tomarken, commissioner of the county Department of Health Services, answered some questions about the local usefulness of the statewide map.

Q: How effective is this map on a local level?

A: It’s a starting point, simply a good source of information, not only for people working in the health industry but for the citizens of Suffolk County. The data is very limited and doesn’t give any answers by itself. But the research is valuable in that it will help people become more aware of their surroundings and environment.

Q: Are you using this map in your department?

A: The county isn’t set up to look for cancer; that is done on a state level. If the county identifies a neighborhood that is cancerous, then we will notify the state and they will bring their team in and investigate.

Q: How accurate is the map?

A: I can’t judge the accuracy, since I was not involved in the process. But, assuming that it’s accurate, then the information is certainly valuable.

Q: The American Cancer Society was hesitant about the release of this map, thinking that the information might be misleading. Do you see where they’re coming from?

A: If the research is taken out of context, then yes, it could be harmful — that is always the concern. You never want to frighten people or spend money on studies that aren’t warranted. If you look at the geography, there are a lot of scenarios where there are higher numbers of cancer cases where there is a nursing home. And the large number of cancer cases found near a certain facility might be in people who are all smokers —