Tonawanda News

Friday, January 30, 2004

COMMENTARY

By Paul Lane

Town's high cancer rates make everyone nervous - even me

Cancer is scary.

There are all kinds of statistics that show that residents in the Town of Tonawanda, particularly the 14150 and 14217 ZIP codes, come down with cancer at a higher rate than the rest of the state.

I've seen it in my own family.

Whenever you're dealing with cancer and radioactive materials, the first reaction is fear. Anyone naturally would be concerned if they thought something could cause disease to them or their family.

And there's no larger target in the town than Praxair.

The technology firm, sitting on what once was a testing site for uranium ore during the Manhattan Project, has come under fire for work that's been going on there. Since 1997, the Army Corps of Engineers has been removing soil and demolishing buildings that became contaminated from spillage from the 1940s

That Is enough for some to be concerned, and rightfully so. Radioactive dirt is nothing to take lightly.

Some residents are concerned that dirt kicked up by construction could drift over to Holmes Elementary And other neighbors, who sleep within 500 feet of Praxair property.

Yeah, I might be freaked, too.

But after touring the project Wednesday, I'm not so sure what to think anymore.

Site Manager Dennis Conroy introduced me to various government and independent officials working on the excavation. They spent a few hours offering me facts on how safe the site is, what extensive testing they do to make sure there's no threat and showing me exactly what they're doing.

At first glance, that mountain of evidence should be enough.

But then ... who can you trust?

This is the government we're talking about, right? They're the ones who started doing nuclear testing in this town. Could they just be trying to cover their backsides?

And maybe they're trying to play me. I'm 25, but I look like I'm barely old enough to drive. Could they be trying to manipulate what they perceive to be naivety?

A handful of studies have been done in and around the site. All have shown there to be little to no risk to workers or the surrounding community. The KenTon School District feels good enough about the area's safety to allow the construction of a playground at Holmes. Kids on swings practically will be able to see into Praxair's lobby.

Even so ... what if?

There could be something we're missing. These are atomic weapons we're talking about. We've seen what that material can do to people. They might not be looking hard enough.

Anyone who lives there has heard the rumors that the ponds in the area never freeze. Some people probably can say they've seen it.

Walking through the site, it seemed as though the Corps of Engineers is taking every precaution. They have air monitors surrounding the hole of heavily compacted clay, and diggers are wearing protective suits.

Each worker is scanned for signs of radiation before being allowed off the site, although they feel safe enough to not wear respirators. That's got to be worth something.

Doesn't it?

I was one foot from the hole and was able to view the work. It being a construction site, I needed a hard hat and goggles, but I felt perfectly safe.

Of course, I bet most cancer patients used to say the same thing.

Cancer is rampant in this area. No one can dispute that. The source of said cancer, though, is not so easy to pin down.

The town is a heavily industrial area along the waterfront. All those chemicals spewing into the environment must have some impact on residents' health over the years.

Even with every precaution in the world, it will be impossible to convince some people that the Praxair site is completely safe. I was overwhelmed with scientific data that it's safe, and yet I still have that nagging voice of doubt in the back of my head.

I've almost convinced myself it's just paranoia.

Almost.

Contact Paul Lane at 693-1000, Ext. 115 or lanep@gnnewspaper.com

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