The emphasis was on screening at Elmont Memorial Library on April 26 at a community meeting hosted by State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages and County Legislator Carrié Solages. The session was called to address concerns about elevated levels of cancer in the area.
The discussion, chaired by cancer survivor and Hewlett House Executive Director Geri Barish, included officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Nassau County Health Department and the Water Authority of Western Nassau County, as well as physicians from South Nassau Communities Hospital.
“We know that the environment, food and lifestyle can all have an effect on our health,” Assemblywoman Solages said before introducing the panel. “We have to separate myth from fact, to educate ourselves. Please, please, please get screened,” she implored.
Barish took up the theme of screening, saying that the county Department of Social Services would help any resident be screened, regardless of ability to pay. “It’s really up to you,” she said. “If you want to get screened, you can.”
County Health Commissioner Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein emphasized the quality of medical care that is available in Nassau County. “We have 10 world-class hospitals and more than 8,000 licensed physicians to serve an area of about 400 square miles,” as well as 11 federally qualified health centers, he said.
Bob Schwartz, chief engineer for the Water Authority of Western Nassau County, described the water system of 24 wells, seven tanks and 230 miles of pipes that bring water to Elmont and surrounding communities. He addressed what the authority refers to in its annual water-quality reports as the “aesthetic” issue of reddish-brown water. This is caused by iron, he said, which is not harmful.
Since 2006, a number of wells in Elmont have been shut down periodically because of volatile organic compounds. In addition, one station has had elevated levels of 1,4 dioxane, Schwartz said. Both VOCs and dioxane are suspected carcinogens, according to the EPA. The authority has received a grant from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to build a pilot plant to remove the dioxane.
Tavora Buchman, the county Health Department’s director of epidemiology and research, described some of the factors that can lead to cancer. She stressed that family history and genetics were the most significant determinants. She outlined the process the state uses to track cancers of various types, logging the information into the state cancer registry, and she showed graphs comparing the incidence of various cancers by age, race and sex. The charts showed a slight decline in cancer in Elmont for the five-year period ending in 2013. Buchman did not offer any comparisons with neighboring communities.
Don Irvin, the Health Department’s director of environmental health, said he hoped residents would go home after the meeting and “drink a glass of cold tap water.” After the laughter died down, he detailed how the county carries out more than a quarter-million tests throughout the system each year. He described what happens when a test comes back with contaminants above allowable levels, adding that New York’s standards are more stringent than the EPA’s.
Dr. Robert Amajoyi, head of colorectal surgery at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, identified a number of specific behaviors that could increase the risk of colorectal cancer. “If you eat a lot of red meat or bread, or if you eat a lot of food cooked over an open flame, then the risk is higher,” he said. “But smoking is the No. 1 cause of all cancers.” He described how carcinogens enter the bloodstream via oxygenated blood from the lungs and can affect every part of the body.
South Nassau gastroenterologist Dr. Iheanyichukwu Aja Onu pointed out that many cancers are slow-growing. “From polyps to cancer takes about 10 years,” he said, adding that survival depends on early detection. “We should all be more proactive,” he said, adding that many people avoid colonoscopies “because they are uncomfortable.” But Nassau is a high-risk area, he said, “and it is more cost-effective to invest in screening than in treatment.”
The presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session in which panelists responded to written questions submitted anonymously by the audience. One wanted to know how many Superfund sites were in the area. Including brown field and Superfund sites, “there are about seven or eight sites in the area,” EPA risk assessor Chuck Nace said, adding that all have been remediated.
Another wanted to know why prostate cancer levels were 50 percent higher than expected in Elmont. Health Department epidemiologist Buchman admitted that “we can’t explain it. There’s no one cause. A person’s health and family history, genetics, whether they drink or smoke all play a role.”
Asked about second-hand smoke and e-cigarettes, the two physicians said that they were just as dangerous as regular cigarettes. Commissioner Eisenstein added that his department conducts regular sting operations in which underage buyers attempt to buy e-cigarettes or “pods.”
The last question came from the floor. Elmont resident Saveria Garcia-Macri asked about two spills in Elmont between 2004 and 2014. They involved the same gas station owners, Nedjet Yetim and his daughter Rachelann, and the same four gas stations, two of which were in Elmont.
The State Department of Environmental Conservation cited the two owners in 2004 for leaky gasoline storage tanks that resulted in MTBE and benzene contamination of the groundwater. They were cited again in 2006 for failure to comply with the 2004 order to repair their tanks. They were cited yet again in 2014 for the same complaint and convicted last year. The DEC found no evidence that MTBE or benzene had polluted the groundwater to dangerous levels, but the water quality reports for the years in question did indicate elevated levels of MTBE.
Garcia-Macri wanted to know whether she was entitled to compensation. The question remained unanswered.