Residents launch survey of cancer rates in Hollis

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A handful of southeast Queens residents began a three-month cancer survey Saturday, going door-to-door to chart incidence of the disease in Hollis, Jamaica and St. Albans, where drinking water may have been tainted with dangerous chemicals in the 1970s.

Armed with fliers and questionnaires, about a dozen volunteers, including state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) and Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-St. Albans), who organized the study, targeted a small area of Hollis in hopes of taking a grass-roots look at cancer rates in the community.

“This is very important information for us from a historical perspective,” Smith said. ‘This is the first time in the history of the community that we’re doing this.”

Fears about the prevalence of the disease are tied to concerns over the safety of the drinking water in southeast Queens. Now-closed wells at the West Side Corporation site at 107-10 180th St. in Jamaica were contaminated with the dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene, known as PERC, and the gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether, known as MTBE, in the 1960s and 1970s.

The chemicals may have been pulled into drinking water supplies, and still remain in the ground as city and state environmental agencies work to clean the site.

The state Department of Health is working with the neighborhood to canvass the area within about a one-mile radius of the West Side Corporation site at 107th Avenue and 180th Street.

The community-based survey was in response to a study that was completed by the state early last year. The state DOH report found that the incidence of cancer in zip codes 11433 and 11434 was no higher than in similar communities in the city, but residents discounted the results, saying they did not reflect information on people who had moved out of the area.

The original study found 878 cases of the disease, broken down into nearly 20 types for men and women between 1980 and 1998, about 40 less than had been anticipated.

Now the community is hoping to get a truer picture of how southeast Queens has been affected by cancer by talking to as many residents as possible to get information about neighbors who suffered from any form of the disease, said Linda Caleb Hazel, an advisory board member and 14-year cancer survivor.

“Let us find out whether it is or it isn’t,” she said of the community’s concern over high cancer rates. “This study will be valid. It will stand up to anyone and give the people peace of mind.”

Volunteers will spend about two weeks in each neighborhood over the next three months, covering Hollis, Jamaica, St. Albans, Brinkerhoff, and Rochdale, said Scottie Celestine, one of Smith’s staff members. The group began on Arcade Avenue in Hollis Saturday.

Saturday’s study team completed four surveys with Arcade Avenue residents, who live just across the Long Island Rail Road tracks from the West Side site, Smith said.

Many questionnaires were left in mailboxes in the area for residents who were not home when the volunteers knocked, but Smith was optimistic about the survey, adding that many will mail the form to his office once they learn what the study is about.

“As we continue to do it, more people will hear about it and they'll read the information we’ve been leaving for them,” he said. “I guarantee we’ll get quite a few mailed back."

Smith hopes to collect between 40 and 80 responses a week for a total of 500 by the end of the campaign, he said.

For more information on the survey call Smith’s office at 718-291-9097, or Scarborough’s office at 718-657-5312.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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