Of oil spills and future studies

It’s been several months since my last blog, and it’s been a quite a summer.

For a mother already concerned about area pollution and its impact on local children, the oil spill was a nightmare.

I know just enough to be frightened as I have been covering the oil spill for a new progressive local magazine, called Sense. In that capacity, I’ve learned from experts like marine toxicologist Riki Ott, who wrote two books about the Exxon Valdez oil spill, more than I want to about the toxicity of oil and Corexit chemical dispersants – and their lasting impacts on human health.

We all smelled the oil fumes in the air and witnessed oil-laden water wash up on our shores, wondering all the while how the largest environmental disaster of our age would affect us in the years to come. Still, with the oil looming just offshore this summer, and benzene, toluene and xylene levels registering in our local air, my children continued to swim in Mobile Bay and play outdoors. I tried to reduce their exposure, but it was summer after all – and the bay has been a way of life – and recreation – for my family for generations.

It will be years before we have answers – and it’s not comforting to know the entire Gulf Coast has become unwilling participants in a science experiment that no doubt will result in future ill health consequences. We will have to just wait and see.

As for our nonprofit, we are forging ahead, holding our next meeting September 30 at Thomas Hospital in Fairhope, where we will discuss the results of the tree core research conducted by the University of Arizona.

Two Arizona researchers found three trees of interest in our area, including one at Fairhope Municipal Park, one at Bayfront Park in Daphne and another at Volanta Park in Fairhope. Those trees all showed elevated levels of heavy metals that require further sampling of nearby trees before it can be determined whether those toxin spikes are based on environmental causes.

If our board decides to bring the researchers back, those scientists would look for replication of those results in two or more trees near the trees of interest, then look for an environmental explanation or source of those heavy metal increases.

Dr. Paul Sheppard with University of Arizona said the Eastern Shore, Alabama results were similar to results of studies in other disease cluster communities they visited in other U.S. cities. Each of those studies showed a few trees of interest scattered throughout those communities, and scientists were able to zero in on sources of pollution and environmental contaminants through repeated sampling in those flagged areas.

During our upcoming meeting, our group will also hear from a professor from a nearby university whose environmental toxicology program is interested in partnering with us to perform groundwater testing and/or environmental mapping. We have reason to believe that groundwater/drinking water testing is warranted. That is all I can say for now until that partnership is solidified.

Either way, we are going to need to start raising money and finding grants and other sources of funding to subsidize future environmental research. There is important work to be done.

Meanwhile, I continue to hear stories that break my heart, continually renewing my conviction that our local environment must be studied.

Recently, a Gulf Shores boy, Jensen Byrd, who was diagnosed in 2007 with neuroblastoma, lost his battle with cancer. He was 5.

And recently, I learned about a 4-year-old Barnwell boy with leukemia and I met a Summerdale woman named Mary whose husband was diagnosed with childhood leukemia (which is very rare in a 60-year-old plus man) in 2004 – the same year my Sarah was diagnosed with leukemia at age 4. Soon afterward, Mary was diagnosed with another rare form of blood cancer, multiple myeloma, and she is surviving despite the odds. We met to discuss an American Cancer Society study that will soon commence to study people without cancer over the long-term, looking for habits and environmental components that may cause cancer to develop.

Mary is excited about getting people to sign up for the Baldwin County portion of this national study and people who are interested should contact the American Cancer Society for more information. Despite the fact that Mary is undergoing treatment for cancer, she is passionate about making a difference through her participation in Relay for Life and the ACS study. Admitting the low cure rate for her disease, she quipped, “I should be gone by now, but I’m just too mean to die.”

I understand her enthusiasm – and her fighting spirit. It is only because cancer came to intimately reside in my family’s life, threatening to take from us our precious daughter, that we continue to pursue the environmental causes of the cancer that almost claimed her.

Sandra Steingraber, scientist, cancer survivor and author of Living Downstream, describes cancer as a serial killer that must be stopped. She believes the way to ferret out this killer is to relentlessly investigate our environment. I agree.

The oil spill will give us other concerns to address down the road. But for now, looking at the tree core studies we’ve started and starting a study on our drinking water is a good place to start.

For more information, please visit our Eastern Shore Community Health Partners website which aims to research chronic disease clusters on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay including rare cancers and neurological diseases in our area. We can be found at www.easternshorecommunityhealthpartners.org.