Cancer Deaths Worry County Officials

County's High Rates Lack Obvious Cause

May 21, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Health officials are trying to figure out why the county has one of the deadliest cancer rates in the nation.

"We are infamous as the (state with the) highest cancer death rate in the country -- and AnneArundel is up there near the top," Frances Phillips, the Department of Health's planning chief, told the County Council yesterday. "The region surrounding Baltimore, including most of Anne Arundel County, is part of the hot spot."

An average of more than 700 Anne Arundel residents die of cancer each year. The county ranked second only to Baltimore City for breastcancer deaths and fourth for lung cancer deaths, according to a statewide analysis of the years 1983 to 1987.

The study made adjustments for age, so that Florida and other states with many retirees wouldnot skew the results.

The county had a death rate of 205.4 per 100,000 from nine types of cancer, including prostate, colon, lymphoma,esophagus, bladder, cervix and melanoma. The state and national rates were 192.8 and 171 deaths, respectively.

Overall, the county ranked behind Baltimore City and Somerset and Charles counties.

The department's cancer work group reported that Maryland's death rate hasbeen higher than the national average since the 1940s and that the county has experienced similarly high death rates for the past 50 years.

During a Board of Health presentation to the council yesterday,Phillips said the Health Department will review every report of cancer in the county to look for explanations of the high death rate.

A department report suggested that the large number of military personnel and veterans in the county might contribute to the high rate of lung cancer, which accounted for 212 cancer deaths in 1989 -- 32 percent of the total.

The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that 42 percent of all military employees smoke, compared with 29 percent of civilians.

But lung cancer isn't the only disease whose numbers are skewed against county residents. More than 60 county women die of breast cancer every year. The death rate per 100,000 is 33, compared with the state rate of 30 and the national rate of 27.

Because there is no known isolated cause for the disease, "We don't know what the risk factor is for breast cancer," Phillips said.

The cancer work group recommended redoubling education and screening efforts. Early detection through mammography and clinical breast examinations can lead to treatment and a 30 percent reduction in deaths, the report said.

Among other cancers, the report discounted the likelihood that industrial pollution or other environmental factors play a major part. The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that 9 percent of cancer deaths statewide are due to environmental or occupational risks.

The county Health Department, however, is conducting a special study on mesothelioma, a rare cancer associated only with asbestos exposure that killed six county residents in 1989 alone.

Director Thomas Andrews said there is not enough informationto conclude whether the heavy industry in North County and South Baltimore or the county's history as a toxic dumping ground might contribute to the high cancer rate.

"I don't think we have any evidence to conclude a broad-brush statement whether the sins of the past do or do not present a risk," he said.

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