Massachusetts health officials trying to resolve a decades-old mystery about a cluster of cancer cases in Ashland have concluded that the illnesses are linked to a former textile dye-making plant with waste ponds that some children used as swimming holes.
People who grew up in the town in Boston’s western suburbs from 1965 to 1985 and swam in contaminated ponds were two to three times more likely to develop cancer than those who didn’t have contact with the water, the seven-year study found.
The incidence of cancer was nearly four times greater among those who had a family history of cancer and also swam or waded in waste lagoons and contaminated natural wetlands near the Nyanza Dye plant, the Department of Public Health said.
Investigators interviewed 1,387 people who were aged 10 to 18 years old during the period 1965 to 1985 and lived in Ashland.
The study found 73 cases of cancer in the group surveyed, and eight cancer-related deaths. About two-thirds of the cancers were diagnosed before the patient reached age 35, and many of involved rare forms of cancer.
“We feel vindicated,” said Marie Kane, who lost her 26-year-old son, Kevin, to a rare form of lung cancer in 1998, years after he played Little League and high school sports near the contamination, and on one occasion fell into a lagoon while ice skating.
Earlier state studies from the 1990s found no link between Nyanza and high rates of cancer.
State officials said Tuesday that the earlier reports reached a different conclusion because the studies were more limited, and were conducted before many of the people who swam in contaminated water during their childhoods developed cancer decades later.
The latest study was begun after Kevin Kane and four of his childhood friends developed rare cancers as young men in the 1990s. Before his death, Kane spoke publicly about his belief that his illness was linked to the contaminated site. Two of his boyhood friends died before he did.
“Nothing is going to change what happened to our son and those boys,” said Marie Kane, who pressed for health studies and cleanup of the contamination. “I guess we feel that through Kevin’s proactive work, and ours that followed, that we were at least able to raise the consciousness level about the contamination, and the importance of protecting Mother Earth.”
Marie Kane, who has lived in the same home on Ashland’s north side for five decades, has eight surviving grown children. None of them has developed cancer, she said.
Kane and several family members were among dozens of people who attended a meeting in Ashland Tuesday night where state public health officials discussed the study with residents.
Local factories produced dye for several decades before the Nyanza Co. plant operated from 1965 to 1978 in Ashland, a town of nearly 15,000 people about 22 miles west of Boston.
While state officials said it’s possible some cancer cases in Ashland may have been linked to dye operations that predated Nyanza’s, the study focused on the years when the now-defunct company was in business.
“That’s when the site was really booming,” Suzanne Condon, state assistant commissioner of public health, told a news conference. “People in the town will tell you, they knew what color of dye was being made on almost any day of the week, because the brook down the street would turn purple or red, or whatever color they were making dye for that day.”
Although the contamination was well-known, some didn’t consider it a risk.
“We had reports to us that one of the things that the old Ashland high school football team used to do when they won a big game was to go jump into the lagoons,” Condon said.
The Nyanza site was added to the federal Superfund cleanup list in 1983, after studies found contamination from mercury and more than other 100 chemicals at the site. The 35-acre site is near Ashland Junior & Senior High School, and surrounded by homes.
Nyanza’s successor companies agreed to pay $13 million of the total $46 million the government has spent on cleanup at the site, said Jim Murphy, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Boston office.
The government hasn’t pursued any illness-related legal claims against parties responsible for the contamination, and Murphy declined to comment on whether such cases might result from Tuesday’s findings.
Mark Oram, Ashland’s health director, declined to comment on Tuesday’s findings. He said he first wanted to review the results and attend the Tuesday night public meeting.
People who may have been exposed to contamination from the site, particularly from water, are being urged to contact their doctors.
Department of Public Health’s Ashland Nyanza Health Study: www.mass.gov/dph/ceh
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