WAFF 48 Investigates: Why North AL cancer rates stand out - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF 48 Investigates: Why North AL cancer rates stand out

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DECATUR, AL (WAFF) -

Cancer incidence rates in Morgan County stand out as among the highest in Alabama, according to statistics gathered from the National Cancer Institute and the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The numbers do not come as a surprise to Quinton Kelso, a Moulton resident who used to live in Morgan County.

"I wonder about the chemicals in this area, especially the chemical plants and other areas that use a lot of chemicals," Kelso said.

Kelso was diagnosed with skin cancer. His wife is currently battling lung cancer. They wonder whether environmental factors like nearby chemical plants and persistent chemical spraying over neighboring fields have anything to do with higher cancer rates.

The NCI numbers from 2005 to 2009 show cancer incidence in several North Alabama counties are higher compared to other counties in the state.

Lauderdale, Marshall and Jackson Counties reported more than 470 cancer cases per 100,000 people during that time frame.

Morgan County's numbers were even higher, with about 508 cancer incidents reported during those years, according to the NCI.

Findings from a 2012 report from the Alabama Statewide Cancer Registry were consistent with the NCI statistics. 

The ASCR numbers showed Morgan County saw slightly higher incidents of lung, breast, colon and prostate cancers than the statewide average. 

The report included both sexes, all races and were age-adjusted. 

"I think you have to look at the common risk factors for these predominant cancers," said Dr. Heather Shah, an oncologist at Clearview Cancer Institute in Decatur.

"We know that for lung cancer, smoking is the biggest known risk factor and if you look at Alabama versus other states, we have a higher percentage of smokers than in other states in the country," Dr. Shah said.

Justin George, assistant director of the Alabama Statewide Cancer Registry, pointed out the same observation.

"One thing that's consistent across all groups is there's higher lung cancer in Morgan County residents than anyone else," said George.

ASCR, established by the ADPH, is responsible for gathering cancer statistics from hospitals in Alabama.

Upon our investigation, they noticed Morgan County has slightly more smokers than other areas in the state.

"But what is another factor for lung cancer is radon," George said.

The radioactive, naturally occurring gas has been scientifically linked with lung cancer in smokers and non-smokers. 

North Alabama is under Zone 1 for radon levels, as designated by the state's Office of Radiation Control.

"That means that Morgan County has the highest potential of having dangerous levels of radon," George said.

Dr. Shah from CCI speculated the same thing.

"Another thing is that we live in a radon area. The older homes especially, but all the homes have a risk of radon exposure," Dr. Shah said.

But there are still the higher prostate and breast cancer rates to consider. The ASCR points out these numbers are only incidence rates and not mortality rates, suggesting it could mean doctors are detecting cancer better and earlier with regular screenings.

"Maybe we're doing a better job. Maybe we're picking up more cancer that wasn't picked up years back," Dr. Shah said.

But the radiation question and Morgan County's proximity to the Brown's Ferry nuclear power plant remains. 

"There's always that concern. But really if you look back there's been a number of good studies that have not been able to prove increased cancer incidents around power plants," Dr. Shah said.

Officials with ASCR said they consistently find nothing to show abnormal cancer cases due to power plants.

"I just found it fascinating that the county where the nuclear reactor is has the low cancer rates," George said.

Meantime, doctors say they're still only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cancer research.

"We're learning the things that lead some people to be more predisposed to cancer. But we don't understand obviously everything about how cancer develops, or we would keep it from happening," Dr. Shah said.

The cancer registry says mortality rates have not gone up in Morgan County, even though they're seeing more cases of it.

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