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Cancer Study Spurs Outcry

September 04, 2004|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Some of the nation's heaviest truck traffic runs through Tonia Reyes Uranga's City Council district, humming day and night past the tree-shaded Spanish-style bungalows of northwest Long Beach.

So when the councilwoman learned Friday that higher-than-normal cancer rates had been found in her district, she immediately thought of the diesel-burning trucks and the nearby seaports they serve.

A new review by USC epidemiologist Dr. Thomas M. Mack does not link the cancer cases directly to air pollution, but many residents near the ports say they have long suspected that toxic emissions are sickening their neighbors and friends.

"We know there's noise. We know there's pollution. But to know that there's also cancer -- that's pretty scary," said Reyes Uranga, whose own census tract near the Long Beach Freeway was found at high risk for throat cancer.

The review of 27 years of Los Angeles County cancer reports determined that several census tracts in Reyes Uranga's district are at high risk for throat cancer, known as oropharyngeal carcinoma. It also found other tracts at high risk for small-cell carcinoma of the lung and bronchus in other parts of Long Beach and southern Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the San Pedro area, said the findings offered one more reason to press for less port pollution.

"When you look at the map, and you see those pockets of cancer -- obviously I think further study is warranted, but I don't think it's coincidence that the people having these lung-related diseases live in close proximity to the ports and the refineries," she said.

Mack and other scientists say more study is warranted to see whether the cancers could be linked with environmental causes, including air pollution. But Mack and others also stressed that his findings, published this summer in a book, "Cancers in the Urban Environment," did not definitively link the cancers to the environment.

Spokesmen for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach said Friday that officials had not had time to study Mack's findings. Nor have officials in the office of Mayor James K. Hahn, said spokesman Yusef K. Robb, who emphasized the mayor's commitment to capping pollution emissions at the port to 2001 levels.

Several council members reacted with alarm in Long Beach, where community groups have been less vocal about port pollution than those in Los Angeles.

"We must find an explanation," said Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal, whose district also abuts the 710 Freeway. "I am horrified and outraged to think that we are in the midst of areas where my constituents and other people in southeastern Los Angeles County are more susceptible to certain kinds of cancer."

Councilman Dan Baker, who represents the port area, noted that higher levels of asthma had been reported along the same corridor. Long Beach may need to conduct a citywide health survey to better understand these problems, he said. "Certainly there is a correlation between the diesel exhaust, the truck traffic, the port congestion and these kinds of diseases."

Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill could not be reached for comment, and city spokeswoman Kathy Parsons said the city just became aware of the Mack report this week, adding that "it's premature for us to say anything."

A bill to cap port emissions at 2004 levels -- passed by the Legislature in August and backed by the city councils in Los Angeles and Long Beach -- has been sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not disclosed his position on the issue.

The executive director of the Long Beach port, Richard Steinke, said Monday that he would urge the governor to veto the bill because of questions on how to rein in emissions. The City Council plans to vote Tuesday on whether to restrict the port's lobbying ability.

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