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State Finds No Environmental Issues in Susquehanna University Study

Jan. 23, 2009

SELINSGROVE, (Pa.) - Two separate state studies have concluded that no link exists between cancers identified among Susquehanna University alumni and environmental factors in the surrounding community of Selinsgrove.

A new report issued Jan. 23 by the Pennsylvania Department of Health confirms earlier findings by the state Department of Environmental Protection that rule out environmental threats to student health. To support the unprecedented DOH study, administrators at Susquehanna University voluntarily supplied the records of thousands of alumni to state epidemiologists.

Using state cancer registries, the agency measured the reported number of cancer cases among alumni who graduated from 1985-2004 against the number of cases for the general population of Pennsylvania. Two types of cancer—melanoma and testicular cancer—were more prevalent in Susquehanna alumni, but according to the report, they have no known association with environmental factors.

"Although the total number of cancers detected in the alumni cohort exceeded the expected number, there is no evidence that this results from an environmental exposure that occurred at the university, or that it is associated with university attendance," the DOH report said. "The overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports this conclusion.

"First, there is no similar increase in the surrounding community that would [indicate] greater exposure to environmental risks. Second, the types of cancer responsible for the excess identified cases have known alternative explanations or are not ones associated with known environmental toxic exposures. Third, the sampling done by PADEP (the Department of Environmental Protection) did not identify hazardous elements in and around the location of greatest concern."

DOH officials noted that the study is the largest ever undertaken by the department. They said they know of no other university that has undergone such scrutiny.

"Thanks to the exhaustive work by two state agencies, we now know that nothing in the Selinsgrove environment is harming our students—past or present," said Susquehanna University President L. Jay Lemons. "We can now speak with greater confidence and certainty than any other university in the nation about the safety of our environment. While the findings related a greater-than-expected incidence rate of cancer overall, and melanoma and testicular cancer in particular, state officials have told us that they would expect similar findings in any study involving similar institutions."

Melanoma and testicular cancer are on the rise in Pennsylvania and the country. Paul Chrostowski, Ph.D, a Maryland-based environmental health engineer and applied toxicologist with more than 30 years' experience, added that the cancers also are more prevalent in white populations. For the period in question, 90 percent or more of Susquehanna alumni were white, compared with 82 percent in Pennsylvania.

"Further, these cancers are more prevalent in young people," Chrostowski said. "And one might expect higher recorded incidents among an educated population because it is more likely to have access to health care screening and detection."

Both studies were prompted by speculative reports in the Harrisburg Patriot-News suggesting that environmental contamination may have caused cancer among SU students and Selinsgrove residents. Begun in March 2007 and completed that May, the DEP study used a variety of sampling and collection methods to test for 68 volatile organic compounds and 99 semi-volatile organic compounds — common chemical compounds ranging from benign to dangerous. Researchers found no imminent public health risks in the area or evidence of any past threat.

The DEP report said "while no absolute conclusions on what may have been present in the past can be drawn, the investigation did not find any residual contamination in the soil or groundwater that would indicate that a significant unknown source of exposure was formerly present that would have posed an unacceptable health risk."

DEP officials say the study was more extensive than any previous non-Superfund study conducted by the agency. Chrostowski added, "The sampling program is virtually unprecedented in the United States with respect to both number of samples and the sophisticated analytical equipment employed."

Contact: Gerald Cohen


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