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Canton doesn't look polluted--but many say Persistent Organic Pollutants raise cancer rates here.
Canton doesn't look polluted--but many say Persistent Organic Pollutants raise cancer rates here.

Governments, activists battle over potential environmental cancer causes

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What we know about the causes of and best treatments for cancer has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few decades. But more knowledge doesn't mean less controversy.

That's especially true with the link between cancer and environmental factors. In 2010, the federal government began encouraging states to bring environmental factors into their cancer treatment and prevention plans.

But many scientists and anti-cancer activists in New York state, say that hasn't happened--and they want to make sure environmental causes don't get ignored.

Nora Flaherty has this report on the battle over Persistent Organic Pollutants.

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Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

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I’m taking a ride with St. Lawrence County legislator Scott Sutherland.

As we pass dairy farms, houses, meadows, and cornfields, the smells of wildflowers and hay are in the air:

"There’s lots of trees, it’s green, it’s the summer things have a slight tungsten yellow to them, where you know it’s summer, but it’s thinking about fall."

It sounds idyllic, but there is something incidious beneath the surface: The rates of incidence for many cancers in the area are significantly higher than the state average. Sutherland has lost his father-in-law, and son-in-law to the disease.

"I don’t think our experience was any different from any other family," Sutherland said.

The causes of cancer are notoriously hard to pin down. Health experts do agree on the broader risk factors: Poverty, lifestyle, and genetics are known to play a large role.

Other potential causes are harder to see. David Carpenter is a professor in the department of environmental sciences at the University of Albany:

"POPs stands for persistent organic pollutants—there are some chemicals, they can’t easily be broken down in the environment or the human body."

POPs include industrial chemicals like PCBs, the pesticide DDT, and polychlorinated Dioxins…and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies many of them as probable human carcinogens.

PCBs were once used by the manufacturing plants in Massena. They persist, in river bottoms and soil. And open trash burning releases POPs into the air.

Carpenter says POPs are in all of us.

"Most of us have levels that increase over time because we take them into our body more rapidly than we can get rid of them."

There might be POPs in the fruits and vegetables we eat, in the in the air—but most likely come from eating animal fat.
The chemicals build up over time when animals eat contaminated feed, or drink contaminated water; and when we eat food contaminated with POPs, they build up in us.


The idea of pollutants in our food and our fat, is unsettling. But—again—it’s almost impossible to say exactly whether they cause cancer.

In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel said governments shouldn’t need definitive “proof” environmental factors like POPs cause cancer…to educate people about the possibility.

The report was something of a watershed moment for environmental health scientists and activists.

So when the State released the first draft of its comprehensive cancer control plan this summer, many—including SUNY Albany’s David Carpenter—expected to see more on the environmental causes of cancer.

"My immediate reaction was that the authors of the plan hadn’t even read the cancer panel report."

Carpenter says what makes it into the plan matters, a lot. The state uses it to help determine where to spend tax dollars on cancer care and prevention. State health department spokeswoman Diane Mathis, says the section on environmental factors is intentionally thin.

She says her department is looking for more input to flesh out that area. But, for North Country activist Donald Hassig, that’s not enough.

"That cancer plan doesn’t use science to prevent cancer, it’s ignoring the science with the pollutant carcinogen information."

Hassig has been trying to raise awareness about possible environmental causes of cancer, for years.

Frustrated, he decided to take his campaign against POPs, local.

Several town boards in St. Lawrence County, adopted resolutions that called for education on the relationship between POPs and cancer.

But Hassig wanted something more substantial to send to the state. That’s where freshman county legislator Scott Sutherland came in.

After meeting with Hassig, Sutherland did some research on what the federal government had said about environmental pollutants and cancer. He introduced a resolution in the legislature in April.

"You know, we know these things are cancer causing agents or suspected to be, and the less you get of them the better. Our local health department will tell you we’re already telling people to eat a low fat diet now. But they never mention anything about carcinogens or persistent organic pollutants."


"The biggest thing that I was concerned about, as a dairy farmer, was that people would be scared."

Kevin Acres is a dairy farmer—and a St. Lawrence County legislator. He voted “no”—with the majority—on Sutherland’s resolution.

Acres said he’s concerned the health benefits of dairy might get lost in the shuffle.

"You don’t really want young mothers to be eliminating dairy products; I don’t really want to come across as someone who’s acting in my own interests. But we’ve seen cases where there have been science scares before."

Susan Hathaway is County public health director. She was reluctant to support education the state wasn’t ,and, like Acres, she wanted proof POPS were a problem in St. Lawrence County before telling people about the potential risks.

"to focus on one basically very tiny issue, that doesn’t have an absolutely proven statistical basis here in the county, would be inappropriate for me to do."

Unperturbed, Hassig has kept working to get POPs into the public eye, town by town:

"We’ve done a great job of using the grapevine that exists among human beings to educate on this POPs cancer problem." 

And no matter what happens, researcher David Carpenter says his and Hassig’s activism hasn’t been wasted:

"Whether that’s translated into the kind of cancer plan I’d like to see remains to be determined. But it’s a positive thing. Yelling and screaming is sometimes the only way to get attention, so I’m glad we’ve done that."

The New York State department of health says the final draft of its comprehensive cancer control plan will be released to the public late this fall.

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