A health study conducted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment of the area known as the 29th and Grove contamination site has revealed that the rate of liver cancer among non-Hispanic Black people in the area was more than twice the rate of the same population in the state as a whole. 

Among people of all races living in the affected area, the rate of liver cancer was higher than in Sedgwick County or the state of Kansas.

Liver cancer is one of several cancers that have been shown to be associated with exposure to trichloroethene or TCE. A spill of that chemical was detected along the northern part of a Union Pacific Railroad by KDHE regulators in 1998. The spill is believed to have occurred in the 1990s or earlier.

Since the first discovery of the contamination in 1998, KDHE has been working with Union Pacific Railroad on clean-up, but a small area of contaminated soil and a large plume of groundwater contamination remain.

After the spill, the chemical traveled through the soil and into the water table deep below ground, creating a widening plume of contaminated groundwater that now stretches from the original site southward to Murdock Street and westward to I-135.

KDHE completed a plan for final remediation in September of last year. For many people living in the area, the news that their groundwater was contaminated came as a surprise and community leaders asked KDHE to conduct the just-completed health study.

Randy Carlson, an engineer with the KDHE Bureau of Environmental Remediation said

Rates of other cancers not elevated

The other cancers associated with TCE exposure, which includes kidney and renal pelvis, urinary bladder, myeloma, lymphomas both Hodgkins and non-Hodgkin’s, were also studied.

KDHE found that the urinary bladder cancer rate was lower in the study area compared to Sedgwick County, Region 5 and the state. The rate of myeloma was similar, as were rates of lymphomas. 

KDHE began the health study by defining the geographic area, the time frame, the specific health outcomes and the statistics to include. The analysis focused on 2,793 addresses in the area where the contaminated groundwater plume has traveled. For comparison, the same cancer statistics were calculated for Sedgwick County, Region 5 (Sedgwick, Harvey, Reno and McPherson counties combined) and Kansas.

For most adult cancers, a period of 10 to 40 years can pass between exposure to a cancer-causing agent and the development of a diagnosable case of cancer. To account for the time it would take for the contamination to leech into the groundwater and the time it takes for cancer to develop, the analysis focused on the years between 2009 and 2019.

State epidemiologist Farah Ahmed said all but one residence in the affected area were determined to have been on city water for household, cooking and drinking purposes before the spill occurred and that limited the exposure of residents.

However, she said, people who were unaware of the danger could have used the water to fill swimming pools or run sprinklers and people could have been exposed that way.

She said there is a risk – albeit a low risk – that more recent exposures could still mean that more residents will develop cancer in the future.

“Cancer takes a long time to develop,” she said. “But the body is pretty good at getting rid of these chemicals. Unless you are continuously exposed over a long period of time, it is unlikely to develop.”

Impact on Infants

Because exposure to TCE can cause birth defects or infants to be born at lower weights for gestational age, birth outcome statistics were compiled for the contamination area and for the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and Kansas.

The study found that the birth defects associated with exposure to TCE were either not present or occurred in numbers too low for statistical comparison.

However, the rates of low birth weight in the study area was significantly higher than in the City of Wichita or Sedgwick County or in Kansas as a whole. 

The percentage of infants with low birth weight ranged from about 12% to 21% each year from 2000 to 2021, while rates in Wichita, Sedgwick County and Kansas ranged from about 7% to 9%.

Other Factors

KDHE stressed that cancer and other adverse health outcomes can be caused by factors other than exposure to any one specific chemical. The environment, lifestyle, family medical history, diet, and social factors can have a negative impact on health and chronic disease.

The study was able to show the statistical differences between cancer rates and birth outcomes in the area in question but not the reason for the difference.

The highest risk for liver cancer, for example, is having suffered an infectious disease such as hepatitis or having developed cirrhosis from damage to the liver caused by disease or over-consumption of alcohol.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services groups social determinants of health into five areas: economic stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, neighborhood and  built environment and social and community context.