Study finds high cancer rates in Monticello

For more than 15 years, residents of Monticello have labored to convince the federal government that emissions from a mid-20th century uranium-processing mill near their southeast Utah town have led to a variety of health maladies.

Between 1941 and the early 1960s, toxic fumes and particulates spewed from the mill’s smokestacks. Now, a new study, released by the state Department of Health, shows those longtime residents could be right.

The report, prepared by Health Department epidemiologist John Contreras, found an elevated risk of lung, bronchial and stomach cancer among Monticello residents during several 5-year time periods from 1973-2004. Completed in December, the study is one of several done since 1997 by federal and state agencies in response to concerns raised by Monticello residents.

Contreras said Friday that lung, bronchial and stomach cancer have been linked to exposure to toxins released during uranium and vanadium processing, but the 2007 UDOH study is unable to draw a direct link. The study found that Monticello residents suffered from lung and bronchial cancers at up to twice the normal rate reported to the Utah Cancer Registry. Incidents of stomach cancer were also “significantly elevated,” the report finds.

“We’re not saying that the significantly elevated incidence of cancer is associated with the mill,” Contreras said. “We can’t definitively say that.”

Still, the new findings are welcome news to Monticello residents, who have long claimed that the mill, which was operated by Vanadium Corporation of America and produced uranium-vanadium sludge for the federal Manhattan Project, made people sick. The findings of a 2006 Health Department review of the state cancer registry were “inconclusive,” and data from an earlier study found no clear evidence that Monticello residents had higher cancer rates than usual between 1973 and 2003, when compared with Utahns statewide.

“We’ve known all along there’s a cancer problem in Monticello,” said Steve Young, chairman of the Victims of Mill Tailings Exposure (VMTE), a Monticello citizens group that is fighting for federal funding for cancer screenings and treatment for those who have become ill. “This is just more proof of what we’ve been saying all along.”

Contreras said the 2006 study surveyed residents based on zip code, which includes much larger areas of San Juan County that are located outside the town of Monticello. That study also relied on information from the Utah Cancer Registry, so it did not include people who had left Monticello before they were diagnosed with cancer, those who were diagnosed at treatment facilities in other states, or those who had died before the cancer registry was launched in 1966. Contreras designed the 2007 study to take into account some of those factors. Rather than surveying the entire zip code, the new study surveyed current residents and next-of-kin for those who had lived in this town of 2,000 at the time of their cancer diagnosis, Contreras said. A total of 603 survey packets were sent out by the Utah Cancer Registry, and about 300 were completed and returned, he said. The final study identified 156 cases that fit the criteria for the study, Contreras said.

Barbara and Fritz Pipkin have been heavily involved in VMTE. Fritz, a lifelong Monticello resident, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004. Barbara Pipkin said she and others are relieved that the Health Department study finally lends credence to the concerns Monticello residents have voiced for decades.

“We knew in our hearts that we were right about this, but it was just a matter of trying to prove it,” she said. “You do feel vindicated. There was so long that we almost wondered if people thought we were just making all this up. Now, the numbers speak for themselves.”

VMTE members now are working with Congress to secure funding for cancer screening and treatment for Monticello residents. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch succeeding in inserting a $67,650 earmark in an omnibus appropriations bill for startup funding to launch a preventative screening program. Steve Young said the money has not yet reached Monticello, but he and other VMTE members are now working with city and county leaders to develop a plan for implementing the screening program.

San Juan County commissioners are in Washington, D.C. this week to push Congress for a bill that would provide funding for early detection and cancer treatment for Monticello residents.

ByBy Lisa J. Church, Editor