The state’s Department of Health (DOH) released a study in April that concluded there was no link between environmental exposure to Newtown Creek and increases in cancer and adverse birth outcomes, such as pre-term births.
At a meeting of the Newtown Creek’s Community Advisory Group (CAG) last Wednesday night in Greenpoint, DOH research scientist James Bowers presented the details of the report, which was the culmination of a long-sought community request to study the health impacts of the much-maligned creek separating parts of Queens and Brooklyn.
“The study was designed to answer one specific question,” Bowers said. “Are the health outcomes observed among residents of the area different than other areas of New York?”
The study looked at the population living up to a half-mile from the creek. According to the report, about 14,000 people live up to a quarter-mile from the creek, which is a small number because the area is primarily industrial.
The population from that point to the half-mile mark is about 49,000 people.
Using sources such as birth certificates and data such as age, gender, race and ethnicity, the review showed an increase in pre-term births and moderately pre-term births, both within the “inner area” of the creek and throughout the entire study area.
Bowers said there were no statistically significant changes in outcomes like low birth weight or birth defects.
When it came to cancer, the results varied by gender and type of disease. Liver and lung cancer increased among men for the entire study area. Bladder cancer, meanwhile, decreased among men in the study area.
The study found cervical cancer increased in all study areas for women, but all other cancers, including breast cancer, kidney cancer and leukemia, had decreased in some areas.
The main takeaway, according to the review, is that “the findings do not provide evidence pointing to health outcome patterns or elevations that are likely associated with unusual environmental exposures in the vicinity of Newtown Creek.”
This health review comes two years after the state agency released a public health assessment in February 2014. That report recommended that swimming, or “full-body immersion,” and eating fish and crab taken from the creek could harm people’s health.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, Bowers still recommended minimizing fish consumption and avoiding swimming in Newtown Creek.
Many residents and CAG members found issues with the study, particularly its limited scope. Laura Hofmann, a lifelong Greenpoint resident who had just joined the CAG steering committee as its 15th member, said this is not study the community wanted.
“The public message is very deceitful,” she said. “We’re suffering from more exposure.”
Hofmann said her mother, father and dog all died from brain diseases. She added that she’ll be asking for more from DOH and this study.
In response, Bowers recognized that the study is limited, and said he’s been saying that for years. He said they don’t have the data on a lot of things going on at the creek.
“I knew you weren’t going to be happy,” Bowers said. “I’m sorry if that’s not what you want, but it is what we agreed on.”
He added that DOH is not in a position to conduct a 60,000-person, door-to-door health survey of the entire community.
Another attendee asked health officials why a stronger fishing advisory wasn’t placed on Newtown Creek, which studies have shown has greater contamination than the East River, according to the CAG co-chair Willis Elkins.
Bowers said because there’s no dam, there’s no way of knowing the difference between fish caught in Newtown Creek or the East River. He said fish move around, so even if they are caught in the contaminated creek, they could have spent their lives in other waters.
Elkins said it’s important to look at the data before coming to any conclusion. However, he said, one possible solution may be to ban fishing and crabbing in the creek altogether.
Elkins, who also serves as a program manager for the nonprofit group Newtown Creek Alliance, said there was a lot of back-and-forth between the community and the agency about the report. DOH has been working on the review for years, even before Newtown Creek was designated as a federal Superfund site.
“The ultimate outcome was trying to see what the relationship is between Newtown Creek and people’s health,” Elkins said. “It’s very difficult to retroactively study a lot of this stuff. There are also many factors that make it difficult.”
He said the study was separate from the Superfund process, which is currently wrapping up the remedial investigation stage. He said all of the agencies and responsible parties involved will be assessing what the risks are, looking at all of the collected data and putting forward a feasibility study of how to clean up the creek.
“It’s a long process,” he said. “The next step is continuing to work with the agencies on understanding what the data is and what their recommendations for cleanup involves.”
With many community members unsatisfied with the report, Elkins said they will submit comments during the 90-day public comment period, which ends on July 18. Residents can send their comments via email to email@example.com.
As the Superfund cleanup process continues, Elkins said he wants more residents from the surrounding areas to be involved and speak up. He said the next years will be a “critical time” for the community to voice their opinion about how Newtown Creek will be cleaned.
“We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars that are going to be spent on this, or not spent,” he said. “We really need to have a more powerful voice if we want to see a creek that is swimmable and fishable 20 years down the line.”