I-Team: Increased cancer rate in neighborhood

Map provided by Dennis Kane

Last May, Dennis Kane of Wakefield felt he was a healthy 60 something, enjoying life with his wife in his comfortable home, not far from the Narragansett Town Beach. But Kane's happiness came to a shocking, abrupt halt; a visit to the doctor resulted in a deadly diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

After dealing with the initial shock, Kane went to work. He wanted to find out how he could possibly be sick, fatally sick with ALS.

"Once I began to contact friends and former residents I discovered there was also a very high rate of cancer, in the Clayton Road area of Warwick where I grew up," Kane said. "I created a map to help me keep track of the different illnesses and when I looked at the map it was shocking."

Kane and the NBC 10 I-Team began contacting former residents of Clayton Road in Warwick.

It wasn't long before a pattern emerged.

Up to 18 people who had grown up on Clayton Road, were all suffering from cancer, eight of which were brain related. Kane reminisced about his old neighborhood, relating his story to the I-Team through and Equalizer Voice Box, similar to the one used by the physicist Steven Hawking in his televised documentaries on the origins of the universe.

"Most of the homes were built around 1950. The land before that time might have been used as a dump site. I found aerial photographs taken in 1938, it shows a large rectangular area and what appears to be a small path," Kane said in the electronic monotone voice. "The path runs from the rectangular area along the edge of a small stream, someone had constructed a large dam that blocked the stream."

The I-Team found several air quality and cancer studies conducted by the Department of Environmental Management. The studies show there's a 30 percent increased rate in cancer in the area including Clayton Road, as compared to the cancer rates for the rest of the state.

Susan Charlwood lost her husband to heart disease. Her husband grew up across the street from Kane on Clayton Road. She admits her husband was a smoker and his heart attack could have resulted from his addiction to cigarettes. But she points out something astounding.

"My husband's father died at age 64 from leukemia and his sister Ellen passed away when she was 56," Charlwood said. "They both lived on Clayton Road."

Lillie Young, of Warwick, tells a similar story. Her husband died several years ago from brain cancer. When he was diagnosed, she became suspicious.

"I was so not expecting it to be brain cancer," Young said. "We were very suspicious with so many people in that neighborhood coming down with cancer of some description."

Young's husband grew up on Clayton Road too.

The high rates of cancer in the Clayton Road area could possibly mean that the area is a cancer cluster.

"It's possible; we are looking at these cases right now," said John Fulton, the administrator for the Rhode Island Cancer Registry at the Health Department.

But Fulton's caution, a cancer cluster comes with a very narrow definition.

"It's an unusually high incidence of cancer limited in space and time, more of a particular type of cancer that we would expect in a small geographic area, there have been cancer clusters in Rhode Island," Fulton said.

But the director of the Department of Health said just because there were high rates of cancer 40 or 50 years ago in the Clayton Road area, doesn't necessarily translate to a cancer cluster.

"There's a huge difference between the perception of a problem and a problem we can prove from a scientific perspective. And there's lots of potential for confusion because cancer is a common disease, " Dr. Michael Fine said.

Nevertheless, the Health Department continues its investigation into a possible cancer cluster in the Clayton Road area of Warwick. But these officials point out people living there now have nothing to worry about, based on where they're living.