CLUES TO CANCER CLUSTER MAY BE AIRBORNE
The dust that collects in the obscure corners of your attic is usually only good for one thing: reminding you that you haven't cleaned. But for residents of Toms River, it could prove to be more valuable even than gold. It may hold a clue or, perhaps, even a partial answer to why the town has so many cases of childhood cancer.
The Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI) is analyzing dust samples from specific homes there for a wide variety of chemicals. EOHSI -- which is jointly sponsored by UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) and Rutgers University -- is part of an epidemiological investigation being conducted by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and the federal Agency of Toxic Substances, Disease and Disease Registry.
The research was put in motion about three years ago, when several mothers in Toms River -- the largest town in Dover Township --realized there was an unusually high number of cancer cases among their children. The Department of Health determined there were indeed about 23 more cases than expected in an area that size. Between 1979 and 1995, some 90 children in Dover Township contracted various forms of cancer. Since then, six more cases were diagnosed. The state and federal governments are testing the water and the soil in the area, and EOHSI is testing the air.
The institute is doing a three-pronged study that is looking at air pollution in that area. One segment involves analyzing dust for a variety of chemical pollutants.
"Whatever particle pollution infiltrates a home, via the air, usually stays there," says Natalie Freeman, PhD, MPH, a member of the exposure measurement and assessment division of EOHSI. "We're taking samples of attic dust that has not been disturbed since the house was built or since a new roof was put on." The researchers will also assess internal pollutants that may be in the house, like cigarette smoke.
Freeman, also an adjunct assistant professor at RWJMS, says a 1990 housing census was updated and turned over to an independent statistician who devised a sampling plan. Between three and five houses in each neighborhood have been earmarked for testing. The researchers plan to get samples from 200 homes.
Paul Lioy, PhD, deputy director of EOHSI and principal investigator, says another part of the study will monitor current levels of toxic substances in the air. A measuring device has been placed in the center of Toms River and a second one near the Toms River exit of the Garden State Parkway. The pollutants are being measured for a year, then will be compared to those found in similar studies conducted in other areas of New Jersey and across the country.
The third leg of the research will create a computer model of an exposure profile, which is an estimate of the rate of transport and the direction of major pollutants in the air to the local community. Prevailing winds are being studied to determine in which direction they blow during certain seasons in Dover Township and how much that could have led to exposure to air pollutants. Historic meteorological records are being used to establish inhalation patterns of pollutants for the effects that have been documented in Toms Rivers.
That information will be combined with studies of the emissions from major pollution sites. Researchers will try to determine if the air closer to an industrial site -- for example, a smokestack -- would yield higher levels of toxic pollutants in the communities of Dover Township.
The entire study will be completed by May 2000, and some smaller pieces of it even sooner. "This is very intense, major research," says Lioy. "Not many other suspected clusters have been studied to this extent. But the design of this study maximizes any potential to detect population exposure to toxins in the environment and then link it with the research of the Department of Health and Senior Services within its Case-Control Epidemiological Study Design. Whatever we find, we hope will help these people."
The magazine of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey