Delaware's Division of Public Health is trying out a new tool for investigating cancer clusters. The pilot project uses blood, urine and hair samples from a few dozen people in and around the town of Millsboro in Sussex County. It's the fist time the state has done such testing, but some locals say the study is too little, too late.

"Significantly elevated"

Coal power causes cancer — in a nutshell, that's the concern of Bill Zak, co-founder of Citizens for Clean Power.

"We thought it was high time that the state look into this," said Zak. "So we petitioned the department of public health to do just that."

The agency ultimately took up the case, and found that Zak's group was right: The incidence of lung cancer near Indian River Power Plant was higher than normal.

"There was an enormous difference between the national average, and even an enormous difference between the lung cancer incidence around the plant and the cancer incidence in the entire county of Sussex," Zak said. 

But that does not mean the coal-fired power power plant is the culprit.

The 2008 study conducted by the health department found that tobacco was likely the driving force behind the local cluster. You can read the full 2008 study here.

Now the Division of Public Health is following up.

New approach

"[We are] taking a look to see what was showing up acutely in people's bodies," said Lisa Henry, the public health adminstrator leading up the current study. The goal, she says, is "to refine our methods and our processes for doing a larger ... body burden study."

In many ways Indian River is the epicenter of cancer cluster research across the state. Henry says 'body burden testing' is a new tool that gives health officials a snapshot of the chemicals floating around a person's system.

Last fall, the Division of Public Health got samples from 32 volunteer participants. The agency is currently undertaking round two with the same group. An interim report was issued this summer. You can read it here.

"We may be able to make certain conclusions that help steer us in certain directions," says Paul Silverman, the agency's associate deputy director, "but that's not the same as saying, definitively, 'What we're finding in their bodies was related to the power plant and that's causing cancer.'"

Public outcry after his agency's 2008 findings in Millsboro led to the preliminary identification of seven other cancer clusters across Delaware. You can see which areas are being monitored here.

If funding permits, Slverman would like to expand the body burden testing statewide.

To what end?

Still, Silverman says it's not the point of such studies to draw a clear link between industrial pollutants and higher cancer rates.

"A cluster is defined as just an unusual occurrence of a lot of cancer," Silverman said. "So yes, we see that in Delaware. The real issue is, 'Why are they occurring? Is there anything that we can practically do about it?' And that's a much more difficult question to answer."

With things like poor exercise, aging and smoking causing 3 out of every 5 cancer cases, Silverman says lifestyle factors are the low hanging fruit that health officials should focus on.

"The [Millsboro] community, however, was still concerned about the excess risk that may be caused by the power plant," said Silverman.

Zak, of Citizen's for Clean Power, thinks the power plant is to blame.

"No way is the smoking incidence the likely cause [of higher cancer rates]," Zak said. "The low hanging fruit here is this plant."

Despite initial pushback, Zak says the Division of Public Health has become much more responsive to the issue of cancer clusters. The current round of biological sampling is proof of that, he says.

"There were smoking guns here — and nothing was happening to study the issue," Zak said. "So we said, 'We don't have another five or ten years to wait, so let's get on this and at least get this as a pilot project.'"

Zak thinks the study is taking the state in the right direction. But he believes more needs to be done to rein in industrial emissions.

"Kids are going to be living, breathing this air," Zak said. "It's too late for adults, but children shouldn't have this. When adults know that it's there, there should be action."

Next steps

Health officials will present the findings of the Indian River study this spring.

NRG Energy, the power plant's owner, has recently invested more than $400 million in pollution controls, according to spokesman David Gaier. The company fully supports the state's efforts to improve air quality, Gaier said.

All parties agree the current round of body burden testing will likely raise more questions than it will answer. Health officials say determining, either way, if the local power plant is linked to local cancer rates is outside the scope of the current study. The goal, they say, is to add to Delaware's growing pool of cancer research.