State and Butte County health officials will hunt for a possible environmental culprit in a cancer spike detected near Oroville.

The rare move comes on the heels of an analysis of state cancer data that found 23 cases of pancreatic cancer in 2004 and 2005, twice the number that would be expected for the neighborhood in question.

The decision to probe further in the Oroville area focuses attention on a now-shuttered wood preservation treatment plant, and whether contamination from the site may have caused long-term health problems for area residents.

State public health officer Mark Horton emphasized however that no link has been established between the 23 cases and any past or present environmental hazard in the area.

“We are going to proceed with further investigation to try to determine if there are any variables that may have contributed to this increase in cases,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “I think there is absolutely no reason for community alarm, because there are many other explanations as to why this may have occurred.”

California health officials get about 100 public inquiries about possible cancer clusters every year, but most are quickly dismissed as “statistically insignificant.” Only one or two yield results that prompt follow-up action, according to a health department spokeswoman.

State and local health officials launched the initial analysis last May. It was spurred by a call to the state from a Butte County resident who had lost a friend to pancreas cancer and knew others who also had been diagnosed with the highly lethal disease.

The caller, who was not named, cited a fire in 1987 at nearby Koppers Industries Inc., a wood treatment facility south of Oroville. The plant was designated a Superfund site in 1983 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

An estimated 10,650 people live within a 3-mile radius of the plant, located a quarter-mile south of Oroville’s city limits.

Contamination from the plant was noted as early as 1973, when the pesticide pentachlorophenol (PCP) was discovered in nearby residential wells used for drinking water, according to the EPA.

Environmental officials later determined that the wood treatment operation had contaminated groundwater underneath the 40-acre industrial site and many nearby residential wells. In addition to PCP, chemicals found in the water included benzene, copper, chromium and arsenic.

After the fire, concerns were raised about potentially dangerous exposure to dioxins, highly toxic industrial byproducts known to cause cancer, which were found in high concentrations in the soil. That prompted the state to issue a health advisory warning residents to avoid consuming potentially contaminated food, including home-produced eggs and meat from chickens raised on soil.

Males, people with a history of diabetes, and smokers all are at higher risk for pancreatic cancer. The disease also has been linked to chemical exposures, including for those involved in the pulp and paper industry, state researchers found.

“It’s been a long-standing issue at the site, because some of the wood-treating chemicals are cancer-causing,” said Fred Schauffler, the EPA’s former site manager at Koppers and now a Superfund section chief.

Full Story: