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Framingham residents press for closer look at cancer patterns

Even though Framingham suffers from average rates of cancer compared with the rest of Massachusetts, activists in the south part of town want more research to determine whether the numerous hazardous waste sites in their area are threatening people’s health.

Speaking at an environmental forum for around 25 activists and residents Wednesday at the Heritage at Framingham senior-living facility on Water Street, University of Massachusetts Lowell public health researcher Molly Jacobs said the town’s overall cancer rates were normal. “There’s nothing striking when we look at the cancer statistics citywide,” said Jacobs.

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But Jacobs also noted that townwide rates based on state public health data don’t reveal cancer clusters involving only a handful of homes in a neighborhood. Those clusters often occur near underground plumes of toxic materials left by factories like the ones that once dotted south Framingham, she said.

A study that looked at more detail would confirm whether some neighborhoods had higher cancer levels, said Jacobs. “You might see patches of elevation,” she said.

Jacobs also thinks Framingham cancer figures merited more scrutiny because instances of female leukemia were 50 percent higher in the town compared with state averages, she said. But she wasn’t sure whether the high rates were a statistical blip or reflected environmental causes like pollution underground. Without more study, she said, she could not draw any conclusions.

“It is interesting,” she said. “But we can’t do much with it.”

Rhonda Andrews, a member of the Framingham Action Coalition for Environmental Safety, said she doubts that the local cancer rates included Brazilians and other immigrants working in auto shops, beauty parlors, dry cleaners, car washes, and other businesses where they would be exposed to carcinogenic chemicals before returning to their home countries.

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“They come here, work, and leave after a few years,” said Andrews. “Were they here and develop something after they go home?”

Members of the action coalition were part of the effort that led to the closing of the General Chemical Corp.’s hazardous-waste storage facility on Leland Street two years ago. Since then, numerous south Framingham residents have joined organizations advocating for the cleanup of polluted properties.

The Framingham Action Coalition for Environmental Safety is closely monitoring the ongoing cleanup at the 2-acre General Chemical property precisely because its members fear the lingering dangers posed by toxic materials, said Andrews.

“General Chemical had a long history of egregious actions and violations that put the community at risk,” she said. “Our mission now is to ensure follow-through on the cleanup.”

Her experience with the company led her to believe the community needed more information on the area’s health records, especially cancer trends.

In the past 10 years, General Chemical has purchased houses in the path of the underground plumes spreading from its property, which first housed an oil depot in the 1920s, after homeowners discovered noxious vapors wafting up from their cellars after heavy rains.

It also sits next to Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, where administrators insist students are safe but parents remain concerned. State environmental regulators have fined General Chemical for dumping materials onto the ground, mishandling barrels of chemicals, and other violations.

The action coalition is also pressuring the town to conduct a thorough environmental analysis of Mary Dennison Park, a popular spot for baseball and other sports that was built on a former landfill.

In May, town officials reported elevated levels of toxic materials at the Beaver Street park to the state Department of Environmental Protection, triggering a requirement to develop a plan to clean up the property. Next month, the town is scheduled to begin its study to determine the extent of the project. “No one living in the shadow of this property should suffer now or in the future,” said Andrews.

Tara Alves, another coalition member, said she and some of her neighbors also want the town to enforce an agreement reached with Ellingwood Construction that would end the company’s asphalt and concrete grinding operations at its Meadow Street site in north Framingham by 2016.

Soot from the grinding covers everyone’s house in the neighborhood, said Alves, and if residents leave windows open, it covers their furniture inside as well. The company’s trucks are constantly driving up and down Meadow Street, too, she said, despite the agreement that says the company’s vehicles should go another way.

Alves, who lives on Danforth Street, said she’d like to know whether the soot is carcinogenic, and whether she should be worried about the anecdotal evidence of neighbors battling cancer.

“We have a problem: a lot of soot,” she said. “We have a lot of children. And we’ve had a lot of people who died from cancer. What could be in our environment that could be the cause of this?”

John Dyer can be reached at johnjdyerjr@gmail.com.

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