FAIRMONT - Fairmont City Council got a surprise this week when a man stepped up to the podium and declared Fairmont has one of the highest cancer rates in the state, with a probable link to the city's drinking water.
Jason Hensler called on the council to take action: "I think we should go after it with ambition, because if we can prevent one case of cancer, I think it's worth it."
Hensler said he got his statistics from a state database, but when pressed for specifics about his source so city staff could follow up on the information, he was vague, saying he thought maybe it was the (federal) Environmental Protection Agency.
"The data would have had to come from us," said John Soler, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health Cancer Surveillance System. "We're the people who collect all cancer diagnoses in the state that are reportable by law. There's no one else."
Looking up the cancer incidence and mortality rates for Martin County and Fairmont, Soler saw no reason for alarm.
"For Martin County, I don't see any difference in [its] rates and the state as a whole, or for the zip code for the population of Fairmont," Soler said.
From 2000 to 2009, the most recent year data is available, 1,426 cases of cancer were diagnosed in Martin County. Soler said 1,438 cases would have been expected, given the number of people and their ages, if the rate of cancer in Martin County is exactly the same as the state of Minnesota.
During the same time period in Fairmont, 824 cancers were diagnosed, which is 5 percent below the state average.
"People with the best intentions can confuse statistics," Soler noted.
Going further into Hensler's argument, Soler debunked the connection between local cancer rates and Fairmont's drinking water.
"I need to emphasize that cancer rates are not a measure for environmental cleanliness or a hint or clue to some past exposure to a carcinogen," Soler wrote in an email to the Sentinel. "It has been shown nationwide that the other causes of cancer (tobacco use, diet, physical activity, access to good medical care and the willingness to use it, local cancer screening rates) are such a large component of determining cancer rates that any effects from any carcinogenic exposure from local areas are overwhelmed by these other dominant and changing factors.
"Elevated rates do not mean an area has an environmental problem. Likewise, normal or below normal rates do not mean there is not an environmental problem or issue in the area. Cancer rates should not be used as an argument that there is or is not an environmental problem in a local area."
As for Fairmont's drinking water, Buddy Ferguson, also with the Minnesota Department of Health, said the city is in compliance with state standards: "Community water supply systems - that is, systems that provide drinking water to people in their homes - are tested on a regular basis for a long list of potential contaminants. The list includes over a hundred pesticides and industrial contaminants, bacterial contamination, nitrate/nitrite contamination, other inorganic chemicals, and naturally occurring radioactive elements, among other potential contaminants. ... According to our drinking water program, Fairmont is in compliance with applicable standards for all of these potential contaminants."
For a summary of drinking water testing activities statewide during 2011, go to www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/water/com/dwar/report11.html