In an attempt to find causes for the high rate of cancer deaths among Anne Arundel County residents, the County Council last night approved a resolution creating a task force to study the problem.
The task force, an idea conceived by Councilwoman Diane Evans and the Greater Severna Park Council, will bring together 15 people who either live or work in the county to gather and study data on cancer in Anne Arundel. They will work with Dr. Katherine Farrell, deputy county health officer, who is a specialist in environmental health.
"What is the purpose of this resolution? Is it to find a cure for cancer?" asked Ms. Evans, an Arnold Republican. "No, but to find an answer to the question: Why is our cancer rate so high?
"Is it what we're eating or drinking? Is it because we smoke more than other jurisdictions?" Ms. Evans asked.
The task force is being encouraged to use the resources of a local university in its study, and it will ultimately be asked to make recommendations in a year to the county executive and health department for strategies to reduce cancer incidence and mortality.
The county's rate of cancer deaths has been of great concern since a Johns Hopkins University study, published in June 1992, found that Anne Arundel had the second highest of any subdivision in Maryland, topped only by Baltimore City.
The study showed that between 1986 and 1990, there were 254 cancer deaths per 100,000 county residents as compared with a rate of 192 deaths per 100,000 Maryland residents.
According to the study, the most prevalent forms of cancer in the county were lung cancer and breast cancer, with the former accounting for 62 percent of the county's cancer deaths and the latter 11 percent.
The county Health Department has already launched an extensive cancer prevention program, called "Learn to Live," that emphasizes getting people to quit smoking and screening programs for the early detection of breast and cervical cancer.
Rich Stringer, executive director of the State Council on Cancer Control, urged the county to continue the program.
"I would not want to see the county lose that focus," he said.
Several people testifying at last night's public hearing raised questions about the environmental causes of cancer. The question is especially pertinent as the county is deliberating whether it should join other counties in building a regional incinerator to burn trash as landfill space grows scarce.
Donna Porricelli of Arnold told the council that her husband, a long-distance runner who was training for the New York Marathon, died a year ago from lung cancer. She said she welcomes the task force because although she knows cancer is caused by cell mutations, "I want to be sure that there is nothing in the air, ground or water in Anne Arundel County that is promoting that cell mutation," she said.
Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Democrat, said he was wondering the same thing himself. "I don't buy the smoking. I don't buy the diet. I don't buy the air pollution. Because I've been around the country, and we're no worse than anywhere else," he said.
Dr. Farrell said addressing environmental causes will be more difficult than dealing with diet and bad habits. "When we're addressing environmental causes, we're generally talking about things that we can't change because they happened 20 years ago," she said. "But they must be addressed."
Dr. Farrell added that the task force will be helped in its efforts by new data that is scheduled to be released Sept. 1 by the Maryland Cancer Registry that will be based on cancer diagnoses.
That will give a considerably more accurate picture than previous data, which was based on death certificates.