For nearly two years now, the News 4 Trouble Shooters have been investigating why people living near the former Kelly Air Force Base are dying of liver cancer at a rate twice as high as other parts of Texas. Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila tells us why health officials are now studying whether a very popular food here in South Texas could be responsible.
It’s something most of us eat all the time. Corn tortillas. Your tax dollars are being spent to study whether they are causing cancer on the south side of town, even though a known cancer-causing chemical has already been found in the groundwater.
The News 4 Trouble Shooters introduced you to Mary Lou Ornelas nearly two years ago. She worked at the former Kelly Air Force Base for about 20 years, and even lived nearby. She worked with dangerous chemicals, including something called TCE, or Tricloroehtylene, a known cancer-causing agent.
Sadly, Mary Lou died less than a week after our interview. She was part of a large group of liver cancer patients living around the old base. For years, county officials have been trying to determine what’s causing the increased cancer levels.
Dr. Fernando Guerra, the Director of the Health Department described the group as, “People who are, who are fairly young still, you know. Their mid to late 40’s and 50’s, etc.”
Many people living in the area are convinced their health problems are the result of the TCE, which was found to have seeped into groundwater. The plume of contaminated water was first mapped out in 1999 and stretched underneath 22,000 homes across the south and southwest sides of town. The area was even dubbed the “Toxic Triangle.”
In the last few years, the plume has shrunk because the air force is slowly cleaning it up.
However, a number of studies have failed to connect TCE exposure, to the cancer cases. Dr. Guerra told us, “For the most part, we did not find an association in the study that we did, which is reassuring.”
So now, the health department is going in a different direction. Texas A&M and Texas Tech researchers are now studying whether corn, like you’d find in corn tortillas, could be causing the liver cancer.
Dr. Kirby Donnelly, who is heading up the study from A&M’s end, said it’s not as silly as it sounds, when he sat down with Jaie Avila recently. Avila asked, “You’ve got this TCE underground in the ground water, and yet you guys are studying corn tortillas.”