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State to study cancer, defects

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A state Department of Health official will conduct a study on the prevalence of cancer and birth defects among north side residents who may have been exposed to chemicals dumped for decades at the former New York Air Brake site.

James A. Bowers, a Health Department research scientist, told about 50 residents Tuesday night at North Elementary School how he intends to go about the study, known as a health outcomes review.” Residents of Watertown’s north side had the opportunity to give their say on the parameters of the study.

They generally wanted the study to include a larger area and go back as far as 1980, the earliest date for which electronic data are available. Mr. Bowers had suggested 1990. The study will take 18 months to two years to complete.

It will not include analyzing people with neurological disorders or children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, Mr. Bowers said, adding that such data is not available. That news frustrated some parents and residents suffering from those types of disorders.

North side residents and people who no longer live in the neighborhood have expressed concerns about levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, found in the neighborhood over the years. TCE is a carcinogen and can cause nerve disorders. Many said they believe that contaminants were dumped in Kelsey and Oily creeks near the site.

Carol J. Molinari, an Ogdensburg mother whose 18- and 14-year-old sons, Vincent J. and Dominic J., suffered from a rare skull deformity at birth, made a formal request for the study almost a year ago. After attending the 90-minute session Tuesday, she said she was satisfied with what she heard, although she understands the frustration some expressed.

“It’s a steppingstone,” she said. “We’re at Point A.”

To see if a trend exists, the study will compare north side residents who have “health outcomes” with the millions of people living in the state. Mr. Bowers said. He will map out the cancer cases with the study area and out of it. It will not determine a cause for the health problems or take into account health risks for individuals, such as whether the person smoked, he said.

Starbuck Avenue resident Karen L. Parks told Mr. Bowers that the chemicals have affected three generations of her family. Her husband grew up on the street and they have a son whose daughter suffers from a birth defect. In addition, two people in the family have had cancer, she said.

Holly A. Lafey, whose 14-year-old son has undergone 25 surgeries because he has spina bifida, said, “You could up and down the street and find cancer all over.”

And Stephanie L. Douglas, 36, had cancer when she was just 4 years old in 1982. Her father, Thomas, has worked at Air Brake since 1973 and also has shown signs of health problems over the years.

She hopes to be part of the study, but it will be up to a Health Department committee to decide whether the study will go back as far as 1980 and include her on the cancer map.

Many of the people Tuesday night wanted a bigger area and more people to be part of the study. Mr. Bowers recommended an area with boundaries of Purdy and Pearl streets to the east, as far west as Mill Street, as far north as Haven Street and including Starbuck Avenue and Cleveland and Francis streets.

Some residents argued it should extend beyond LeRay, West Lynde and East Main streets and into the town of Pamelia to the north.

Taking into account Tuesday’s comments, Mr. Bowers will put together a second draft of what the study would entail before the committee has the final say. A small group of residents also showed interest in helping him with the second draft.

Last year, the Vititoe Law Group — the firm made famous by environmental activist Erin Brockovich — agreed to represent residents who believe they have suffered health problems because of toxic chemicals dumped at the Starbuck Avenue site.

A lawsuit may be filed in the next several weeks.

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