Health officials find no link between tainted Saunders Park, cancer deaths

by Andrew Bainbridge | Oct 02, 2014 | In the News

By: Mark Ferenchik of the Columbus Dispatch

State cancer datand local death certificates show no link between contaminants in Saunders Park and cancer cases or deaths among area residents, according to Columbus Public Health officials.

Officials researched Ohio Cancer Registry data between 2000 and 2010 of people who live in a half-mile radius of the park and did not find high incidences of liver or bladder cancers, officials said yesterday.

Both cancers can be linked to exposure to arsenic and lead, two of the contaminants in the soil at the Near East Side park, health officials said.

They also researched death certificates between 2000 and 2011 that show that heart disease was the No. 1 cause of death of those who lived within a half-mile of Saunders Park, with cancer the second leading cause. In Franklin County, cancer is the leading cause of death, then heart disease.

What that tells officials is that there does not seem to be a link between the contaminants in the park and health problems and deaths, said Dr. Mysheika Williams Roberts, the city’s assistant health commissioner and medical director.

A fertilizer plant had operated in the area before closing in 1970.

A handful of Near East Side residents met with city and state officials last night at Poindexter Village Community Center to discuss the findings.

Lela Boykin, 71, a Hawthorne Avenue resident, said she was disappointed that no link was found. She thinks more former residents should have been surveyed over a longer time period.

Evelyn Cleveland, 64, of Graham Street, also said that more people should have been contacted, especially those who lived near Saunders Park in the past.

“Unless you deal with history, you don’t have a comparison to today,” Cleveland said.

Roberts said more people might be interviewed if soil samples on nine adjacent properties taken by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reveal problems. Test results are not available yet.

In an interview before the meeting, Roberts said that looking at cancer and death data before 2000 would require seeking out paper records, which would take more time and effort than looking at the electronic information.

The top types of cancers reported in the Saunders Park area between 2000 and 2010 were lung and bronchus cancer, followed by prostate, breast, colon and rectal, and kidney and renal cancers, the city said.

Although lung cancer can be connected to lead exposure, 17 of the 25 cases were in people who smoked, health officials said they learned from July interviews with people living near Saunders Park.

Columbus Public Health already had reported not finding health symptoms consistent with arsenic or lead exposure in 25 people at 17 residences.

Mayor Michael B. Coleman ordered the survey after The Dispatch reported in September 2013 that arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene found at the park exceeded recreational standards. Arsenic is a poison, and benzo(a)pyrene is suspected of causing cancer. Lead, also detected at the site, can impair neurological development in children.

City recreation and parks officials allowed youth soccer teams to play there despite the findings. After reading about it in The Dispatch, Coleman closed the soccer fields, which were then fenced off.

City officials have selected a $1.2 million cleanup plan to cover the 9 acres of the park where the contaminants were found with 2 feet of clay and 6 inches of topsoil.

The goal is to reopen the park by 2016.

Roberts said Columbus Public Health officials have no plans to find the families of children who played on the fields over the years, because their exposure would have been limited.

“We feel the recreational exposure would likely be under the threshold for concern,” she said. ” They weren’t exposed 24/7.”

Dispatch Reporter Jim Woods contributed to this story.

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