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Cancer cluster, or just coincidence?

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BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - 35 years after an environmental disaster occurred in Battle Creek, some insist that disaster is responsible for cancer cases in the city.

The area that became known as the Verona Well Field disaster in 1981 is still fenced off and considered a Superfund site near the intersection of Emmett Street and Raymond Road.

At the time the water wells were found to be contaminated---and that contamination was found to have seeped into the ground, wells, and the main water supply.

Much of the contamination was blamed on The Thomas Solvent company and Grand Trunk Railroad company nearby. Officials say the companies were responsible for spilling and dumping chemicals such as Trichloroethylene, a cancer causing chemical.

Cleanup took years, and there is still anger about how much, if any damage the contaminated water and soil caused humans who lived near the contamination.

"From my graduating class in particular there were 6 people eith head and neck cancer," said Tracie Tomak, who later became a lawyer in part, because of the contamination disaster.

"At the time we were 35 years old or younger," she added. "I thought that was a very high number, and in my neighborhood of Wattles Park there were 10 to 12 families where at least 1 family member, if not more than one had experienced cancer."

In 2002, Tomak was diagnosed with throat cancer, which she has since treated, but a few years earlier her father died of colon cancer.

She remains convinced certain areas in and around Battle Creek have a high number of head/neck cancer cases, and she's convinced the Verona Well Field Disaster contamination had something to do with it.

At one point, Tomak, with a the help of a friend who also grew up in the Wattles Park and developed thyroid cancer, mapped out cancer cases in the area.

"I recall at least one cancer case for every five or six homes, and we looked at the extended Shadowood subdivision, basically everything north of Michigan avenue," she said.

Tomak says one out of every six homes at the time, had someone diagnosed with cancer.

Then and now, Tomak stands by her theory connecting the Verona Well Field contamination disaster to the cancer cases.

She is not alone.

Annie Robinson has Stage 4 breast cancer, and lives approximately 4 miles north of the contamination site on Sunwood Drive.

She keeps a lengthy list of everyone in her neighborhood who she says was diagnosed and/or died from cancer.

Her father and mother died of cancer, and her brother, who also grew up in the Sunwood home, was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. Robinson said she took a BRCA gene test, which she says, indicated her cancer is not genetic.

"Honest to god I believe all this cancer in this neighborhood is related to that Verona Well," she said.

Robinson says many of her neighbors share her opinion.

"I just think that some awareness needs to be brought---so nobody has to suffer in this area."

Only one study has ever been conducted looking at the health effects of the disaster.

The tentative findings, first released in 1989 showed no link between the water contamination and diseases, but the report was heavily criticized.

According to an article in a 1989 issue of the Battle Creek Enquirer, a senior epidemiologist at the time critiqued the study for "not providing enough sample from which to draw statistically conclusive results."

Fast forward to 2016, and both Tomak and Robinson say it's time for a new health study, looking at a possible cancer connection.

Newschannel 3 took the concerns about cancer to the Calhoun County Health Department.

A spokesperson passed along contact information of a regional epidemiologist, before warning Newschannel 3's I-Team "CCPHD has not been involved in the Verona Well Field in over 30 years."

After attempting to speak with the regional epidemiologist, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services declined our request to make that person available, instead, providing Newschannel 3 with a statement.

"We have no records of public inquiries related to the Verona Well Fields," wrote Jennifer Eisner, a public information officer with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"People often call the Toxics Hotline in the Division of Environmental Health to voice concerns about perceived disease clusters, such as cancerand none of the calls we've received have related to concerns near the Verona Well Fields."

MDHHS referred Newschannel 3 to the comprehensive public health assessment completed in 1994 related to the Verona Well Field Disaster.

Here is a link to that entire report: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/pha/PHA.asp?docid=472&pg=0

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