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Health department: Fridley cancer rate not unusual

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The Minnesota Department of Health said Monday it has concluded research on cancer cases in Fridley and found that an elevated cancer rate in the northern Twin Cities suburb was likely due to a high lung cancer rate.

A group of Fridley residents had noticed a high number of cancer cases and asked health officials to investigate. The cancer rate in Fridley is about 7.6 percentage points higher than normal, but state health officials say it isn't unusual to find higher cancer rates in some communities. 

John Soler, a cancer epidemiologist with the health department, said it would be very difficult to figure out if former Fridley residents were exposed to something years ago that put them at increased risk.

"What you would really need to do is reconstruct a population from the '70s or '80s, which as you can imagine, would be a huge task to try to figure out all the people who lived in a particular area at some given point in time, following them forward, then finding out whether they did or did not have cancer, whether they smoked or not," he said.

Even then, it'd be impossible to determine what caused each person's case of cancer, he said. Soler also noted that about half of Minnesotans will be diagnosed with cancer sometime in their lifetimes.

Fridley's lung cancer rate is 30 percent higher than the state overall, and the rate is even higher among women, Soler said Anoka County also has a higher smoking rate than other suburban metro counties. 

"We don't know whether all those who had lung cancer in Fridley were smokers, but we can infer that smoking plays an important role in the elevated lung cancer rates in the community," he said.

Members of the community have asked whether several environmental cleanup sites known as Superfund sites have anything to do with higher cancer rates. But environmental experts from the health department and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said there's no evidence to suggest people are being exposed to something in the environment that increases cancer risk.

Fridley's drinking water system is regularly monitored for contaminants, and there has been no evidence of the water failing to meet health standards, said Karla Peterson, a drinking water protection supervisor with the health department.

Health officials said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and MPCA also have not found human health exposures from contaminated soils, vapors and groundwater near the Superfund sites.

But Fridley residents said they will continue searching for answers.

Jason McCarty, who started a Facebook group to address the issue, said he was disappointed the health department did not conduct an investigation that included studying both current and former residents.

"I grew up there. We want answers as to why. If there is no answers, or there's no reason and it's just a fluke, then it's a fluke. If there is something, let's find out," said McCarty who now lives in Blaine.

McCarty said it is possible residents were exposed to something harmful in the environment in the past but have since moved away. He said looking only at current Fridley residents with cancer doesn't capture that possibility.

The citizens group has been collecting information from current and former residents to share with consumer advocate Erin Brockovich and her team, who plan to come to Fridley sometime in May to investigate, McCarty said.