Maria Rivero only has to walk outside her front door to find suspicions of a cancer cluster in her quiet neighborhood.
"This house was breast cancer,” she says, pointing to her neighbor’s house down the street. “This house was breast cancer, colon cancer, that house down that way was also another colon cancer."
Rivero is not the only one in her Amherst neighborhood keeping count of neighbors touched by cancer, and like the others, she says, "I'd like to know what, if there's a common dominator here?"
Hundreds of people in the area have been wondering the same thing, and they’ve created a Facebook group about it called the Dana Heights/Williamsville Cancer Research Project. More than 700 people have joined to share similar stories about their families and neighbors.
"I was shocked that so many people have come forward," Rivero told 7 Eyewitness News recently.
Most of the Facebook posts name streets in the Dana Heights neighborhood, which is described as one of the "most sought after neighborhoods" in Western New York. It’s loosely bordered by Sheridan Drive, Maple Road, Seabrook Drive and Transit Road. Smack in the middle is Teakwood Terrace, a street repeatedly named by residents as having a cluster of cancer cases.
"Is there something in the soil?"
Residents are hesitant to speak too loudly about their suspicious for fear of their property values going down. But they say several neighboring homes, on both sides of the street, have occupants who were plagued by cancer. Other streets are cited too, as well as nearby neighborhoods. Rivero lives about a mile and a half away from Dana Heights.
"Is there something in the soil? Is it just coincidental?” Rivero asks. “I would like to find out, get some answers, do a little investigating as to what's going on."
The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team took those questions to Dr. Stephen Edge, a vice president at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
“No one can say that each individual cluster isn’t real,” Edge says. “If I were living on a street where multiple people had gotten multiple different kinds of cancer, it would raise my concern as well. I certainly don’t discredit their concern.”
State data shows Amherst does have an elevated rate of breast cancer. Health officials point, in part, to greater access to cancer screening in more affluent neighborhoods. But could there be more to it, especially in a place where apparent cancer clusters are raising the question of whether this is more than happenstance?
The New York State Health Department says it is "not aware of a suspected cancer cluster" in Amherst, but Rivero isn't so sure. After neighbors reached out to the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team for answers, we started digging, and found a map – compiled by the state -- which shows Erie County has the third-highest rate of invasive malignant tumors in New York State.
In Amherst and Williamsville, state data shows breast cancer occurrence is 50 percent higher than the rest of the state. The health department attributes that increase to the fact that women in more affluent areas tend to have greater access to health care and cancer screenings.
State officials and cancer experts also say maps like these need to be interpreted with caution. That's because there are so many different factors that go into a cancer diagnosis.
“You go to the street that you live on. How long have you lived there? How long has your neighbor lived there? Were they brought up there?” Edge, the Roswell Park doctor, asked. “Are the influence on cancer risk things that happened when you're a child or an adolescent? Those things are very, very hard to fathom out and we actually frequently cannot fathom them out.”
There are rare cases -- like living in a home with asbestos -- where the connection to cancer is clear. “But making these connections with other environmental factors is exceedingly difficult,” Edge said. “And it's not that anybody's covering things up or something, it's just extremely hard.”
'They didn't give a hoot' about the environment
But the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team dug deep into town records and found the area near Transit Road and Sheridan Drive was the site of a small airport – with a dirt runway and a fueling station -- before it was developed into homes in the 1970s.
The area looked almost rural back then, and 40 years later, it's a densely-populated neighborhood. It was also developed at a time when many of today's environmental rules were just starting to be written into law. “They were just ignorant of the fact that there was an environment,” said former Amherst councilman Bill Kindel. “They didn't give a hoot.”
Kindel knows firsthand about pollution in Erie County’s largest suburb. In 1964, the former town councilman led a charge to turn a dumpsite about ten minutes away from the neighborhood into a nature preserve and a park. “It was a disgusting site, and it was like that for about 30 or 40 years.,” Kindel said. Town residents used the land as a dumping ground for toxic household substances like lead and arsenic. “By the grace of God, really, we got enough people together to put a stop to it.,” Kindel recalled.
What resulted was the Great Baehre Swamp Wildlife Management Area -- a 600-acre nature preserve that underwent extensive remediation to the tune of a half-million dollars. “It took us seven years to convince people, by test, by reality, that this place was a safe place to come because of the remediation we did,” Kindel said.
Today, Billy Wilson Park is an oasis -- a slice of nature in the midst of strip malls and traffic jams. In neighborhoods like Rivero's, post-World War II development ramped up before most environmental laws were in place.
State environmental officials tell the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team they are "not aware of any environmental data or records" in these Amherst neighborhoods, but Kindel says the onus is on authorities like the State Health Department and the DEC to get into the neighborhoods and find out.
“I want to congratulate Channel 7 for doing what you're doing,” Kindel said. “You're taking a leadership role here when someone else should be. It shouldn't fall on your shoulders.” He thinks testing the residents’ soil is the only answer to this problem.
“They deserve an investigation and they deserve an answer, scientifically,” Kindel said. “They deserve an answer to what's going on with their properties, what's going on with their health.”
DEC officials said under the state Superfund program, they can perform an investigation of a site if "sufficient evidence" exists, but they made no commitment in this case.
The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team will be following up with state officials and also researchers at the University at Buffalo to see what it would take to test these areas and get to the bottom of this for these homeowners.
Do you have a story or a tip about cancer in your community? Log on to the 7 Eyewitness News Facebook page and leave your comment below the story.
Charlie Specht is the investigative reporter for 7 Eyewitness News. Ashley Rowe is a reporter and anchor on the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team. WKBW photojournalists Bohdan Petriv, Lou Chilelli and Jeff Wick shot and edited video for this investigation.