Toxic Emissions: Cancer Rates Soar in High-Discharge Area

By Streater, Scott | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, July/August 2002 | Go to article overview

Toxic Emissions: Cancer Rates Soar in High-Discharge Area


Streater, Scott, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


The numbers bothered me.

Every April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory documented that industries in the Pensacola area release millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water, land, and underground - by far the most in the state.

This raised a lot of questions: What do the numbers mean? Is it really that significant to have the most toxic emissions in Florida, which is not known for its industrial activity? What health impact, if any, does all this pollution have on the people who live here? And why has no one ever asked these questions before?

The search for these answers launched me and the Pensacola News Journal on a months-long investigation that resulted in Congress last year approving $1.7 million to begin a five-year, $15 million study to examine whether this toxic pollution is making local residents sick.

It began in late 2000 when state Sen. Durell Peaden, a retired family practice physician, called to tell me he was concerned about high cancer rates in Northwest Florida.

Several health maintenance organizations had pulled out of the area in the last several years, he said. He provided me with letters from one HMO chief executive officer who threatened to drop coverage for 6,000 state employees in the Pensacola area unless the Legislature raised insurance premiums. The reason: Cancer rates within the group were many times higher than the national average.

"There needs to be more research on this," he said, before adding that he doubted we'd ever find any answers. We accepted the challenge. What we found was startling:

* More toxic pollution is discharged each year by industries in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, than in 19 other states, including New Jersey - one of the most heavily industrialized states in the country.

* Death rates from all forms of cancer in Escambia County and neighboring Santa Rosa County far exceed national rates.

* Escambia County ranks in the Top 40 nationwide in emissions of neurological and developmental toxins linked to a host of birth defects and behavioral disorders.

* Escambia and Santa Rosa counties far exceed state rates for several major birth defects associated with exposure of infants and pregnant women to neurological and developmental toxins. In addition, childhood cancer rates in Escambia County have been among the highest in the nation in the 1990s.

Relevant data

The pollution statistics were easily downloaded from the Internet. The EPA's Toxic Release Inventory database is an amazing tool (www.epa.gov/tri/),

Using TRI Explorer, I was able to quickly rank Escambia County among the 25 most-- polluted counties in the nation. In addition, I knew exactly what toxins were being emitted, where they were being discharged, and by what company.

It was much more difficult to obtain relevant medical data. I was aided tremendously by the Florida Cancer Data System - a partnership between the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami and the state Department of Health. The Florida Cancer Data System compiles all cancer data throughout the state (http://fcds.med.miami.edu/). The data is very specific, offering rates of cancer incidence and mortality per 100,000 population. This allowed us to compare age-adjusted cancer rates in Northwest Florida to other counties across the state and nation. In addition, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has mortality records that can be downloaded, state by state, for each county (http://wonder.cdc.gov/).

For more detailed information, we paid the Florida Cancer Data System to compile cancer incidents by ZIP code, allowing us to pinpoint areas of concern. This cost only $500.

What I didn't find was a lot of specific data on the health impacts of the toxic chemicals emitted by industries. A surprising number of chemicals on the market today have never been tested for their impacts on human health. …

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