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Study Finds No Extra Environmental Cancer Risk Near Incinerator

Andrea Smardon
The Foxboro neighborhood of North Salt Lake is adjacent to Stericycle's medical waste incinerator.

The Utah Department of Health has completed an analysis of 35 years of cancer data in the area surrounding Stericycle’s North Salt Lake medical waste incinerator. The study shows no increased environmental cancer risk for residents in South Davis County.

The state Environmental Epidemiology Program looked at all reportable cancers in South Davis County from the years 1976 through 2011. The study did not find any cancer associated with environmental exposures to be elevated in comparison to state rates. But epidemiologist Dr. Allyn Nakashima says the study is limited, since it does not test exposure to pollutants for those who do have cancer. It also cannot account for latency - cancers that may appear years after exposure.

“We don’t want to over reassure people, because we don’t know. Is there zero risk?  I can’t say that of course, but on the other hand, is it that different from other areas? No, so I think that’s all that we can say with this,” Nakashima says.

The analysis did uncover some elevated numbers in the area for colon and prostate cancers, melanoma, bone and joint cancers, breast cancer, and anal cancer among women, but the study’s author says none of these are typically attributable to environmental exposures, and would have to be studied again in a few years to determine if there are any cancer clusters. Dr. Nakashima says it was meant to be an initial screening study.

“What we use these types of studies for is to give an indication that yes, we need to follow up with a more expensive, detailed study, but we really didn’t have evidence to do that from this,” Nakashima says.  

The Department of Health is testing soil samples in nearby areas for the hazardous chemical dioxin, and also analyzing birth outcome data. The results of those studies are expected in the spring, but health officials say preliminary data suggest there will not be any alarming results.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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