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The residents of Stronghold are not facing abnormally high rates of pancreatic cancer fatalities, according to a D.C. Department of Health study released last week.
The examination was prompted when some residents claimed that the neighborhood had higher than usual rates of the deadly cancer, suggesting that the deaths could be linked to the area’s water supply. Ninety-four percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within five years, according to the study. In 2013, 75 people in the District died from pancreatic cancer. However, “there is nothing that is environmental that is leading to any cause of alarm,” said Najma Roberts, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Health. “The data does not show elevated risk of pancreatic cancer.”
The study looked at pancreatic cancer rates throughout the city based on ZIP codes, wards, and census tract zones. DOH noted that there were nine pancreatic cancer deaths between 2004 and 2013 in the 92.03 census tract, which includes Stronghold. That census tract had 2,582 people in it in 2010, according to census data. Stronghold had 457 residents in 2010.
Stronghold is largely contained in the 20002 ZIP code—-though its population makes up just a small percentage of the ZIP code’s more than 52,000 residents—-and that area had 75 pancreatic cancer deaths between 2004 and 2013. Although that is a higher rate than most of the city, there are six other ZIP codes with higher rates of deaths from the cancer.
“The incidence of cancer of the pancreas among D.C. residents showed an increase over the period between 2004 and 2009, but has begun to level off since then,” the study said. “The reported incidence is highest in Ward 5, which is the location of the Stronghold Community, but the number of reported diagnoses of cancer of the pancreas has been stable at around 20 per year since 2009.”
The study also noted that no D.C. agency has found abnormal levels of arsenic in D.C. water, a claim that some Stronghold residents had lodged. While there is research suggesting that arsenic-contaminated drinking water wells could be associated with higher rates of pancreatic cancer, the DOH study notes that the science is still speculative. (Stronghold doesn’t get its water from wells, but from the same place as everyone else in D.C.: the Potomac.)
Laura Jackson, a longtime Stronghold resident who has helped bring attention to the rates of cancer in the community, says she’s not happy with the substance of the DOH study. She had hoped that because Stronghold has such a small population, the study would take a narrower look at cancer rates in Stronghold specifically. And she says that, in the past 18 months, four Stronghold residents have died from pancreatic cancer. The DOH study does not include 2014 deaths, but Jackson says she knows of 2 Stronghold residents that have died of the cancer this year.
“We were hoping to see more of an intensive study,” says Jackson.
Roberts says DOH was unable to verify the claim of four pancreatic cancer deaths in Stronghold in the last 18 months. One possible explanation for the discrepancy, according to Roberts, would be if the person wasn’t actually a resident of the Stronghold community when they died.
The city says it has plans to present the results of the study to the Stronghold community.
Read the full study below:
Photo by Darrow Montgomery