Floridians Living Near Superfund Sites More Likely to Get Cancer, New Study Shows

It's no secret that it's best not to live near one of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund sites. They're the most polluted places in America. But those sites also tend to be crammed near low-income communities and communities of color that don't live there by choice.

A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Statistics and Public Policy should raise even more alarm about the Superfund sites in Miami-Dade County. According to the study, rates of cancer incidence increase by 6 percent in Florida counties that contain Superfund sites.

Miami-Dade County contains 14 such sites — the most in Florida — though not all are still listed as active.

"The timing of this is really interesting given what’s going on federally," the study's author, University of Missouri assistant research professor Dr. Emily Leary tells New Times. "If I were a public health professional, I'd use this paper to inform areas that might warrant more investigation."

The federal Superfund program was established in 1980 to clean up the nation's most polluted areas. According to the researchers, Florida contains the sixth-highest number of Superfund sites in the nation, behind New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. But in that time, Leary says, it's been difficult to deduce the exact impact those sites have had on residents living near them, because diseases such as cancer can be caused by thousands of variables over the course of a person's lifetime.

"It’s hard to capture that exposure history," Leary says. "People are mobile, and a record of their residential history isn’t kept anywhere. That just makes it difficult."

But, she says, by taking the data for all cancer cases from 1986 to 2010 and mapping it across the Sunshine State, some hot spots emerged — and many clustered around major Superfund areas in counties such as St. Lucie, Osceola, and Citrus.

But though Miami-Dade County contains a high number of Superfund sites, its cancer-cluster incidence rate remained the lowest of any Florida county surveyed. That fact perplexed Leary and her team, who found Miami-Dade to be the only cancer-cluster outlier in the state. But her team has a guess about what's going on.

"In the time period we studied, there was a huge influx of population," she says. "And not only that, the population was mainly foreign-born Hispanic in ethnicity. So what we thought might be happening in South Florida is that influx of population might be washing out the clusters."

In other words: The huge number of new immigrants to Miami might be skewing the data and preventing scientists from tracking cancer rates in people who've spent decades living in one place near Dade County Superfund sites. The risk of living near a Superfund, she says, is likely no less in Miami-Dade than it is anywhere else in Florida.

Floridians Living Near Superfund Sites More Likely to Get Cancer, New Study Shows
Statistics and Public Policy

Miami-Dade's list of Superfund sites is long, varied, and all sorts of dirty. There's the Varsol Spill site near Miami International Airport, where 1.5 million gallons of Varsol paint thinner leaked from a pipeline for decades and nearly contaminated the Biscayne Aquifer, Miami's sole source of drinking water.

There's also the active Northwest 58th Street Landfill in Hialeah, which accepted industrial waste from 1952 to 1982;  the one-acre Continental Cleaners site, which was so potently contaminated that it infected the groundwater; Hialeah's B&B Chemical Plant; and the entire Homestead Air Reserve Base. The majority of the sites sit near low-income communities of color — and none of Miami-Dade's sites sits within the confines of Miami Beach.

Superfund sites are basically the locations of gigantic, decades-long accidents where business owners or factory operators mistakenly pumped harmful chemicals into the earth without knowing it. (That, or they knew it and did it anyway.) The study's results are all the more reason why companies such as Florida Power & Light and Florida Crystals need to think twice before, say, burying a bunch of nuclear-power-plant waste near drinking water.

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