Report: Increased cancer found in Davis County not necessarily linked to Stericycle

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 11 2014 6:40 p.m. MST

Stericycle medical waste incineration plant in North Salt Lake City  Thursday, May 30, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Stericycle medical waste incineration plant in North Salt Lake City Thursday, May 30, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A report spurred by public outcry and commissioned by the governor indicates that while some cancer types have increased, there is no measurable uptick in environmentally linked cancers diagnosed near Stericycle.

The Utah Department of Health and Davis County Health Department looked back 35 years to compare cancer incidents near Stericycle, a medical waste disposal facility in North Salt Lake, looking for increased incidents or cancer clusters in Bountiful, Centerville, North Salt Lake, West Bountiful and Woods Cross.

"I don't classify those as proof of an elevation occurring or a cluster occurring. They're red flags," said Lewis Garrett, director of the Davis County Health Department. "I am fairly reassured by this data. … I would not recommend people move or sell their houses or take any drastic actions."

A heated and vocal campaign against Stericycle erupted after the company reportedly violated air pollution limits last May, an allegation it later denied. A growing group of protesters, including government leaders in neighboring Salt Lake County, insists the company's incinerator is releasing dangerous and invisible particles of medical waste into the air.

The study, which Gov. Gary Herbert requested in October, does not disprove the possibility that health problems are linked to emissions from Stericycle, Garrett added. The two departments will continue to watch the data in coming years.

Stericycle announced last month it intends to move to rural Tooele County.

Out of 42 of the major types of cancer reported in the past six years, the report identified a slight elevation of six types: colon, prostate, bone and joint, breast and cutaneous melanoma cancers, as well as anal cancer among women.

"These cancers are all highly preventable through lifestyle choices and regular health screenings," said Allyn Nakashima, state epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health. "No links to air, water or soil have ever been established for these types of cancer."

Alicia Connell, co-founder of Communities for Clean Air, said she hopes the health department will continue to watch the area because health problems possibly linked to Stericycle may not be apparent for several years.

"I hope they start looking into more than just cancer possibilities and they really start looking in-depth at our health," Connell said, "making sure that what this company is doing is not hurting us and that 10 years from now we're not going to all look back and think, 'Oh, my word. We should have fixed this. We should have shut this down a long time ago.'"

The report took data about cancer patient counts from the Utah Cancer Registry and the Utah Department of Health between 1976 and 2011, broke them down in six-year increments and compared them, explained Sam LeFevre, the report's author. Researchers looked for changes that continued across two six-year periods or surfaced in the most recent period.

The study does not measure cause and effect, LeFevre noted, and some increases are expected to surface periodically based on the amount of the data being reviewed.

However, because of the time it takes for cancer to develop after exposure, and more time after that before the cancer is detected, another study period is need to determine whether those cancers continue to increase or others surface, said LeFevre.

"Regardless of whether Stericycle is a factor or not, we want to promote healthy lifestyles in the community," LeFevre said. "If we can find concerns that the community ought to be aware of, this is an opportunity to promote that."

In light of the report, the two health departments are recommending residents in south Davis County and Utahns in general be aware of lifestyle choices that may help prevent cancer, such as quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding excessive sun exposure, and getting regular health screenings.

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