It’s been a little less than two months since Jason McCarty started a Fridley Cancer Cluster Facebook group as “a place to discuss the cancer that is prevalent in Fridley.”
The group’s 330 members are abuzz with anecdotal evidence of friends and family who have contracted cancers, health tips, worries about environmental risk-factors such as radon exposure and plans to attract the interest of consumer advocate Erin Brockovich.
In an email response to a member of the group, a senior epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health analyzed Fridley’s cancer rates over the last decade and found them significantly higher than the state average.
State epidemiologist John Soler found that Fridley’s cancer rates were 10 percent higher than the state average between 2000 and 2009, according to data from the Minnesota Cancer Surveillance System.
Lung cancer rates were 30 percent higher than expected, with incidents among women elevated 48 percent above the state average, figures Soler called “statistically significant.”
Read Soler's full email and look at our table of his findings.
Many members of the Fridley Cancer Cluster speculated that the high cancer rates might be due to water contamination, but Soler said that the data was “not alarming” and did not prove that environmental factors are to blame.
“One becomes very weary about looking at high rates and saying, ‘Oh, is there something environmental there?’” Soler said in an interview. “For the most part, a lot of it is driven by smoking habits, and that’s not to say that pollution doesn’t cause cancer, but you often can’t see the effect of pollution.”
Soler said that when a town’s residents move, it can skew results, and cancer’s long gestation period—10 to 30 years between exposure and illness—makes environmental studies prohibitively expensive.
“We’re not going to be able to tell you whether the cancers in this community are caused by polluted waters or not,” he said. “We have a person’s address at the date where they’re diagnosed, nothing else.”
The loosely coordinated Fridley Cancer Cluster group is making rough strides to collect data, with members asking other members to contribute accounts of residents and former residents who have contracted cancer.
Looking at the group’s discussion page, it seems everybody has a cancer story. Typical comments include a victim, a cancer and a location: “My dad died in ‘73 from cancer as well,” one member wrote. “We lived on 68th and Washington.”
Soler said as life expectancy increases, so do cancer contraction rates.
“Half of us in Minnesota are going to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lives,” Soler said. “Most people look around and even if they don’t know it’s 50-50, it surprises people.”