FRIDLEY, Minn. - It is often referred to as "Friendly Fridley", but recently the city has been described by some as "Cancer Cluster."
"So many people in Fridley are getting cancer," said Pat Sibert, long time resident of Fridley.
KARE 11 sat down with four current or former residents of Fridley, Jen Omlie, Holly O'Neil, Pat Sibert, and Jason McCarty. All have a connection not just to their beloved town, but to cancer.
Now in remission, Omlie was diagnosed with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma in 1993, a rare cancer when she was just 23.
"You can see where they removed my ear from here and cut all the way back and then they cut all the way down my neck," said Omlie about the surgery that removed her cancer.
She still suffers many side effects, including debilitating migraines.
Holly O'Neil's 51-year old husband, Scott passed away a month ago from Cholangiocarcinoma, a relatively rare cancer that is found in the tissue of the bile ducts.
"Right now it's just about readjusting," she said as tears welled in her eyes.
Pat Sibert's father passed away from lung cancer after years of smoking. Her sister passed away from anal cancer and her brother died from colon cancer.
She also says 11 people on her street have either been diagnosed or died from cancer.
And finally there is McCarty whose mother is a breast cancer survivor. And good friend and Fridley classmate Brad Johnson died of brain cancer.
That got him thinking and counting.
"I just started going around my whole neighborhood and finally got done at 30 to 45 people and I was like something's not right," he said.
On the surface, the numbers seem to back up that concern with cancer cases in Fridley higher than the state average by more than seven percent.
That's why he started a Facebook page devoted to finding cancer cases in Fridley believing the water or the air could be causing the heartache.
"Within two weeks, I had to turn people away because I was getting flooded with cancer cases," he said.
So McCarty asked for help and he got it in famed environmental investigator, Erin Brockovich who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie named after Brokovich.
"We're going to find things out that we don't otherwise know," said Bob Bowcock, who is part of Brockovich's team.
Both will be in Fridley Wednesday holding a town hall meeting, of sorts at the Fridley High School. Doors open at 6pm. It starts at 6:30.
Bowcock says they've been conducting their own investigation into the elevated cancer rates, starting to interview people who have suffered from cancer who live in Fridley now or have lived there.
What got their attention was not necessarily the high number of cancer, but the high number of contaminated sites in the Fridley area, known as Superfund sites.
"And what we discovered was literally six superfund sites in a state that has 25," he said.
Which he claims is one of the more concentrated areas he has ever seen in his 15 years of investigating.
The sites in Fridley have been flagged by the federal government as past dumping grounds of toxic chemicals.
"We've tested this water fairly rigorously that it meets the standard and the standards are based on the best available science," said Karla Peterson, water specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health.
The state health department says the elevated cancer cases can be explained through what they say is the high number of smokers in Fridley.
"The thing that really stuck out was the amount of lung cancer was elevated by 30-percent, which really drove the 7 percent," said John Soler, Senior Epidemiologist with the state health department.
Soler said Anoka County has the highest metro smoking rate of 23-percent compared to next highest, Ramsey County, at 15-percent. The numbers were gathered over the last ten years.
He believes the Facebook group is asking valid questions and understands their concerns, but claims there is no evidence to suggest that Fridley's cancer rate is caused by the water or the air.
"About 50-percent of Minnesotans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, 50-percent. So what people in Fridley are seeing is not all that usual," he said.
And Fridley's mayor, Scott Lund agrees.
"There's always that possibility, but I think the possibilities are slim at best," he said of the cancer concerns in Fridley.
Lund has lived and raised his family in this community for last thirty years.
"We have several Superfund sites. They're well documented, they're monitored, and they're capped," Lund said.
But some elected officials are not as confident.
"I think there's something there but I also believe there's no way to prove it," said DFL State Representative Carolyn Laine, of Columbia Heights.
Laine who represents parts of Fridley is calling on the state to do more when monitoring cancer cases.
Right now, as part of the state's Cancer Surveillance System website, officials keep track of every cancer case in Minnesota, but they don't ask the cancer patient the places they've lived.
"When it was actually developing, I was living in Fridley, but I was also considered a Blaine statistic," said Omlie who wants more research done in Fridley.
People who grew up in Fridley but moved away are not counted as a Fridley cancer case. Laine wants that changed.
"I don't think we can go back in time but we certainly can start now," said Laine.
The state says to reconstruct a population is almost impossible to do.
"It would be a mammoth task to try to reconstruct the population of Fridley from say the 1970's or the 1980's to determine where everyone went and which ones did and did not develop cancer," he said.
Bowcock agrees that it is very difficult to recreate, but he and his team have started interviewing people who were diagnosed with cancer in the Fridley area hoping to get a clearer picture of the cancer rates.
"I think the information that comes from the community is more reliable than a mathematical data set," he said
So far though Bowcock says their investigation has not found the smoking gun so many believe is there. He believes any answers will take time.
Fridley State Representative Tom Tillbery is glad to see there is more outside investigation, but he worries people who want answers may come up empty handed.
"I just don't want our Fridley folks up in arms and seeing something that may not be proven out," said Tillbery.
Proven or not, people on both sides of the issue believe more investigation is needed.
"I understand that it's possible that I may never know, but if there's a possibility that I can know why, I'd like to," said Omlie.
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