When Jane Horton first heard about a huge plume of toxic chemicals found under the ground in her Mountain View neighborhood she immediately worried about her family’s health as well as the long term health of her neighbors.
Now some of those fears appear to have been at least partially realized.
California’s state Cancer Registry announced that after exhaustive research and analysis of three decades worth of health data, it found a higher than expected number of people living in Horton’s neighborhood who contracted a group of cancers the registry’s scientists call non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The higher than expected incidence of these cancers occurred during the years 1996 to 2005.
“My first reaction is, I was just really sad thinking about the neighborhood people,” Horton told NBC Bay Area upon learning of the Cancer Registry’s findings.
NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit's questions about toxic plumes of smoke prompted a CPIC inquiry
The Cancer Registry conducted the research at the request of NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit after reporters began digging through years of documents and technical reports associated with several different toxic Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites in and around Moffett Field in Mountain View, including Horton’s neighborhood.
The Cancer Registry counted the cases of cancers among people living in three different U.S. Census blocks surrounding what’s known by the EPA as the M-E-W or Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Superfund site. The Cancer Registry report then compared those cancer rates among people living at the M-E-W site to the cancer rates among similar populations living in other areas.
The M-E-W Superfund site dates back to 1988 when the EPA discovered tons of a toxic cleaning solvent called TCE, or Trichloroethylene, that had leaked or been dumped into the ground by both by the military and the then young semi-conductor industry located right outside the gates of Moffett Field.
Several different scientific studies dating back decades have shown TCE linked to several types of cancer in humans. And just last year in a report on TCE and cancer the EPA officially linked TCE to cancer in humans.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit began digging into questions about the health effects of the MEW and other EPA Superfund sites in and around Moffett Field in March.
As part of that investigation, the Investigative Unit asked California’s Cancer Registry to take a look at the area to see if there were more reported cases of cancer than scientists would expect from a similar population in normal circumstances.
EPA scientists say the area was contaminated by TCE not in the groundwater, but in the air. Scientists say TCE can collect in buildings and homes through chemical vapors coming from the very soil where the toxic chemical still exists.
The EPA calls it vapor intrusion where TCE filled air accumulates inside buildings and homes.
In Horton’s home, at times, the EPA measured TCE levels several times higher than the level the EPA considers safe.
The EPA also says the plume of TCE underground has migrated over the years.
Caused by Fairchild Semi-Conductor, Raytheon and Intel Corporation and others, the toxic chemical plume has now moved underground, towards the San Francisco bay under NASA’s Moffett Field.
There, it joins another similar plume that makes up a second EPA Superfund site, called the Naval Air Station Moffett Field.
Since almost all of that Superfund site sits under NASA’s Ames’ Moffett Field and no one lives over it any more, California’s Cancer Registry did not research or analyze data for cancer rates for the Naval Air Station Moffett Field Superfund site.
After its detailed analysis the Cancer Registry and its epidemiologists found a higher incidence of certain types of cancers, a group of cancers known by scientists as non-Hodgkin lymphoma among residents living around the M-E-W Superfund site.
“I was hoping that the statistics not show to be true, but when you find out it’s true, it’s like, why do we wait so long?” Horton said. “Why aren’t those responsible polluting parties more responsible for delivering that message to people that could be impacted or people that have been impacted?”
“It’s a concern. Cancer is a concern to all of us,” said Dr. Kurt Snipes, Chief of Cancer Surveillance and Research for the Cancer Registry at California’s Department of Health in Sacramento.
“We focused on cancers that in the past there have been some reports of some association between TCE exposure and cancer,” Snipes said. “Those three cancers were cancer of the kidney, cancer of the liver and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Those are three cancers that have been associated with TCE exposure in the past.”
And though the report found no rise in the numbers of kidney and liver cancer cases, the registry did find “a statistically significant elevation for non-Hodgkin lymphoma” from 1996 to 2005.
Cancer Registry scientists found there were 31 cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma during that time period, nearly twice the number that would be expected - 17.
“I can fully understand why residents in the region might be concerned that’s why we have as careful analysis as we can,” Snipes said.
Like Horton, Lenny Siegel has lived in the same Mountain View neighborhood for decades. He’s become a community activist and resident expert on the toxic TCE plume under his community. Siegel also serves as executive director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a local environmental watchdog group that has been monitoring the underground M-E-W plume for years.
“Somebody should be looking at it, reviewing the data saying, ‘Did we miss something?’” Siegel asked. “Because as you’ve said, the spike is significant, but we just don’t know enough to blame it on the TCE. What we do know is that all that TCE that’s underground needs to be cleaned up.”
“Did it (the report) surprise you?” NBC Bay Area Investigative reporter Stephen Stock asked Siegel.
“A little bit. It makes one wonder,” Siegel answered.
The registry did find some good news. The rate of non-Hodgkin lymphoma among residents at the site has been trending at normal levels since 2006. Still, Snipes says the unexpected number of cancer cases has the attention of health officials around the state.
“The cancer registry will certainly continue to monitor the area as new cases come in,” Snipes said.
Horton wishes she would have had this information sooner.
“It took you guys to do it,” Horton said. “It didn’t take the polluters, it took investigative reporting to do it. And now we want to find out more.”
Horton said this information gives her and her neighbors knowledge and thus power. With it, Horton says, she and other residents here, could make more informed decisions about their health and the risks of living here.
“At least people should be alerted that they are in a risk zone for this. So they have an opportunity to be more aware, maybe something could be found maybe sooner than later, it’s just wrong,” Horton said. “And yeah, it does make me mad.”
California’s cancer registry will continue to carefully monitor the health of residents living in and around this area to make sure there isn’t another spike in the number of cancers there.
The Santa Clara County health department has also been notified and has put the area on its watch list.
The EPA has also been notified and is continuing its clean-up efforts but it could be decades before this entire Superfund site is completely cleaned up.