GENESEE COUNTY, MI — County residents are more likely to be diagnosed with some form of cancer than those living elsewhere in Michigan during the last 30 years, a new report published by the state of Michigan says.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released the cancer report for the county on Thursday, Oct. 29, a review the state says was conducted in response to citizen requests during the Flint water crisis rather than any documented cluster of cancer cases.
“Genesee County’s total cancer incidence rate was higher than the state of Michigan for most years during 1985 to 2015,” part of the report’s conclusion says. “Rates of breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer were not higher than the state of Michigan for most years during 1985 to 2015.
“Urban counties that are sociodemographically similar to Genesee County have rates of lung, female breast, and colorectal cancer that are not statistically different than Genesee County for most years during 1985 to 2015. Compared to the county, the frequency of cancers was higher than expected for some cancer types and in some ZIP codes and lower than expected in others. ZIP code 48505 stood out as having more statistical elevations in cancer incidence than other ZIP codes.”
The 48505 Zip Code includes the bulk of north Flint and stretches east to the Flint River. It also includes the Beecher area of Mt. Morris Township and a part of Genesee Township where some residents have fought for decades against the Genesee Power Station, which burns low-value wood fiber, such as broken crates, and pallets, turning them into useable biomass fuel. Residents who have fought against the plant have complained of potential health threats related to it.
In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report that concluded state agencies made decisions in permitting the plant that “resulted in African Americans being treated differently and less favorably than whites.”
The MDHHS report says its review only identifies if there is an excess of cancer incidence in an area and does not determine whether cancer rates are associated with environmental exposures.
“It should be noted that according to the … Census Bureau, this ZIP code (48505) has been undergoing large declines in population size since about 1990, losing 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010 alone,” the report says. “These changes in underlying demographics which are used to calculate (the) statistics can make the resulting estimate of (cancer ratios) less reliable.”
Although the new MDHHS report analyzed data from 1985 through 2015, it is very difficult to draw conclusions from it about the water crisis, said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.
The water crisis was triggered by the city of Flint’s use of the Flint River as its water source in parts of 2014 and 2015. During that time, the city’s water contained elevated levels of bacteria, lead and Trihalomethanes, a group of four chemicals that are formed as a byproduct of disinfecting water and which over many years could cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and an increased risk of cancer.
Data for the MDHHS report “ends in 2015 and it’s not specific to the city of Flint,” Hanna-Attisha said in a text message to The press. “If cancer is related to an exposure it takes years, decades and sometimes generations to present.”
To get a clear picture of whether Flint water contributed to increased incidences of cancer, a study would need to cover more years and focus on areas where city water was distributed, the Hurley Medical Center pediatrician said.
In a news release, DHHS said based on its review, the department is “not planning additional analyses of the Cancer Registry data for Genesee County at this time.”
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