Cow Island skeptical of DHH study
COW ISLAND - Etta Langlinais did her own study of cancer cases in her community. She went door-to-door this fall, surveying her neighbors, asking them about their illnesses.
"In a 2- to 2 1/2-mile strip of road, there were about 23 people who had cancer," Langlinais said.
So when Langlinais learned Thursday that a state study of cancer in the area showed no increased cancer risk that could be linked to arsenic in their drinking water, she was skeptical.
"We went around in our community," Langlinais said. "It's not numbers we made up."
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals released the results of its study Thursday at a community meeting of about 50 people. It showed that the people in Cow Island's zip code were more likely to get some cancers, and less likely to get others. But overall, the study showed no significant difference in cancer rates in that area compared to the parish and the state, and no significant difference for types of cancers linked specifically to arsenic exposure - bladder, kidney, and liver.
But state epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard emphasized that doesn't mean the tiny community of Cow Island and neighboring Forked Island don't have problems with cancer.
"There is no way we could find something small," Ratard said. "If it's something big that affects thousands and thousands of people, it's going to show up in the statistics."
DHH used cancer stats from the Louisiana Tumor Registry, broken down by zip codes. The population of Cow Island is too small a percentage of the entire zip code's population - which includes the city of Abbeville - to determine whether there is a cancer cluster in the tiny rural community, Ratard said.
Curious residents questioned Ratard in front of thousands of cans and hundreds of jugs of pure water which served as a backdrop to the meeting. The water, some donated from Schilling Distributing and some donated from a church in Lydia, is free to area residents. It served as a reminder that most here don't drink the water that comes from their wells. Tests by The Daily Advertiser and the state Department of Environmental Quality showed 10 wells are contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic. Many in the community have suspected that arsenic was giving them cancer.
The DHH study did not use the cancer surveys that residents conducted because the data was not comprehensive and had to be verified by doctors, said Patty Andrews with the Louisiana Tumor Registry. But Langlinais wanted to know what became of that data; Andrews said her office was still working to verify the cases.
"I was impressed with the amount of work that you did," Andrews told the audience.
Ratard said a private study, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, could determine a precise cancer rate for Cow Island.
Wilman Gaspard, a Forked Island resident, said he was disappointed with what he learned.
"We didn't really get much more than what we knew before," Gaspard said. "I appreciate them trying to assist us... but it seems like there's always something more that could be done, but we don't know what that is."
Originally published February 18, 2005