If you live in Alberton and you’ve developed cancer since 1996, when a Montana Rail Link train derailed and spilled, among other hazardous chemicals, a tanker’s worth of chlorine, your cancer is probably not a direct result of exposure to the toxic cloud that contaminated the area on that bleak spring day, according to preliminary research by the Montana Department of Health and Policy Services (MDHPS). Probably not.
The problem, says Todd Damrow of the MDHPS, is that cancer is such a commonly occurring disease among Americans that “Each of us stands a one-in-three chance of getting cancer in our lifetimes, and statistics show that three of four families will be affected by cancer.”
These facts make Damrow’s job all the more difficult. Sorting out cancer derived from the ticking time bomb that is our genetic lot in life from those brought to you by environmental exposure has so far proved to be a Sisyphean task. The findings of the MDHPS are based on data from the National Tumor Registry, essentially a listing of who’s who in cancer types and rates around the country.
“We compared Alberton to state and national rates of cancer types and found similar rates state- and nationwide,” says Damrow. “When you compare further the variety of cancer types in Alberton to those nationwide, the evidence speaks of a non-common origin.”
But according to Beverly Ridenour, an Alberton resident who’s been digging into the medical facts and fallout of the spill, the evidence in this case has not been sufficiently gathered. “There’s been no flyers, nobody going out there door to door, and nobody from Helena [where MDHPS in located] here to investigate,” says Ridenour. She claims that there’s plenty of evidence for the taking, if only someone with some official medical clout would come and take it. She has already uncovered documents that show other chemical compounds that can form in the presence of chlorine, oxygen or water may well have been present, including hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen.
“There’s whole families here who are sick,” says Ridenour. “I know one family where everybody was sick with cancer or other problems, except for one 17-year old daughter, and just last week they found she’s got a lump in her breast. She was the only healthy one in the family, and now this.”
As for Damrow and the staff at MDHPS, they may simply not have the resources to investigate as thoroughly as Ridenour would like them to. “We get requests to investigate cancer clusters here [statewide] at the rate of two or three per month,” explains Damrow.