Lower Delaware ‘cancer cluster’ study highlights impact of out-of-state polluters [video]

    Residents in Lower Delaware were concerned about lung cancer rates near a coal-fired power plant. In response, state officials conducted a first-of-its-kind study. The results of that study were released Tuesday. 

    The study looked at two snapshots in time: Fall 2011, when the Indian River Power Plant was shut down for improvements; and fall 2012, after $300 million in pollution controls were added.

    For each year, officials collected and analyzed blood and urine samples from 32 volunteer participants who lived near the plant in Millsboro, Del. — an area that had once been identified as a cancer cluster.

    The new study also included indoor and outdoor air testing.

    “As far as our understanding of the causes of cancer, the biomonitoring in the Millsboro study is one small piece in a very complex puzzle,” Delaware Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf said at a Dover press conference Tuesday. “The data from the study will provide us a starting point when it comes to better understanding human exposure [to airborne pollutants].”


    The study found the current operation of Indian River Power Plant had almost no impact on both the pollutants found in the air around Millsboro and in the bodies of nearby residents.

    In fact, according to the study, household air tested for higher concentrations of potentially harmful pollutants than outside air.

    As for the outside air, the study confirmed something that had long been suspected.

    “A lot of the pollutants that affect Delaware residents come from the west,” said John Carney, Delaware’s lone Congressman, “from states whose power facilities have not made the significant and costly upgrades that have been made here in our state.”

    The study found that more than half of the particulate matter in the air over Sussex County, Delaware was from major cities such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Boston.

    You can read the full report here.

    “It is absolutely crucial for our neighbors upwind to be good neighbors,” said Collin O’Mara, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

    O’Mara says some of the worst offenders are coal plants in states as far west as Indiana and Ohio. “Which is why Senator [Tom] Carper [D-Del.] often calls this part of the east coast the ‘tailpipe of the nation,’ because all that pollution ends up landing right here.”

    Unasked questions

    Delaware officials say the study in Millsboro was never meant to probe possible connections between past cancer rates and past emissions levels. The new data will serve as a baseline for possible future studies, officials say.

    “We didn’t really expect going in to answer the question that I think most Delawareans would want [answered],” said Congressman Carney, “which is, ‘What was the cause of previous elevated cancer rates?'”

    Health officials say previous research in the Millsboro area indicates that smoking was the likely cause. Overall cancer incidence, they say, is largely driven by lifestyle and genetics.

    “Finding a direct link between cancer and the environment is very difficult to do,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the state’s Division of Public Health.

    She added later: “We’ll never be able to know with certainty who got the highest exposures [in the past] and if that may have impacted their health.”

    The report was sponsored by the Delaware Cancer Consortium and DNREC, and prepared by RTI International, a North Carolina-based research firm.

    WHYY-TV’s First covered issues surrounding the Millsboro biomonitoring study last fall. You can watch our video report below.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal