Erin Brockovich to visit, likely in May, to investigate and meet with residents of city with a toxic past.
A couple of months ago, Jason McCarty started thinking about all the people in his old Fridley neighborhood who had developed cancer.
His mom. A classmate. The people down the block.
Seemed like a lot. So the 42-year-old father of two started a Facebook page, the Fridley Cancer Cluster group, to share his concerns. Now more than 1,100 people have joined the group, echoing his fears that something in Fridley's past may be coming back to haunt them. And Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader of Hollywood fame, is coming to investigate.
"I just want answers," said McCarty. "We want answers."
The cause has caught fire, in part, because a state health official confirmed to a group member that the cancer rate in Fridley was higher than the state average -- by about 10 percent.
The official, John Soler, a cancer epidemiologist, checked the state cancer registry and found that 1,537 cancers were reported in Fridley from 2000 to 2009, compared with the "expected" number of 1,402 for a city that size (about 25,000 people).
At the same time, he noted that a 10 percent variation, up or down, is "not that unusual."
Brad Carlin, an expert in health statistics at the University of Minnesota, agrees. "I think it's a little bit premature to be sending Erin Brockovich out to start testing the water in Fridley," said Carlin, a professor at the U's School of Public Health.
But the cancer numbers, which were shared on the Facebook page, set off a flurry of frantic comments.
"Just on my block alone, 4 houses in a row someone died from cancer .... what are the odds of that??" one woman wrote. Others volunteered similar stories. "We moved to Fridley in 1962, and my father died of leukemia in 1971," another woman said.
Replied McCarty: "We are going to need a database to keep all this information straight. Anyone good at that type of thing?"
McCarty, who works in shipping and receiving at Costco, doesn't pretend to be an expert. But he says people have reason to worry because of Fridley's toxic history -- particularly as the home of two Superfund sites that were contaminated with industrial chemicals for decades.
That's one of the reasons that Brockovich and her team have started an investigation.
"You've got a hot spot," said Bob Bowcock, a California environmental investigator who has worked with Brockovich for 14 years. "All I'm saying is when you have a 10 percent statistical increase, whether it's factual or not or explainable away, in a town that has two Superfund sites ... I just want to look a little deeper."
Brockovich, who has made a career of investigating environmental hazards, was immortalized in the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts.
Now she gets about 2,500 requests for help a month, and chooses about 100 a year to investigate.
Bowcock noted that Brockovich is "often criticized for stirring up hysteria. That's absolutely not what we're about. We're very systematic."
A look at Superfund sites
Bowcock said he's studying documents, provided by McCarty and others, showing Fridley's pollution history. Two of its sites, the U.S. Navy munitions plant and the FMC plant, were on the infamous federal Superfund list for contaminating groundwater with carcinogenic chemicals.
Despite cleanup efforts, Bowcock said, the chemicals remain in the environment for hundreds of years.
He said he and Brockovich plan to visit Fridley, probably in May, to hold a public meeting and to conduct water and soil tests. "I think that people are due genuine answers," he said.
McCarty, who now lives in Blaine, says he doesn't want "everyone to get paranoid about this." But he said he isn't satisfied with the state numbers, because they don't include people who grew up in Fridley and moved away. That, he said, is one reason he called in Brockovich and her team. "They have the expertise to do something that the normal person does not have."
A statistical fluke?
Yet Carlin, of the university, says that historically, the vast majority of suspected cancer clusters turn out to be statistical flukes. In a town such as Fridley, he said, cancer rates could be higher than the state average one year, and lower the next, by random chance. "It's easy to become hysterical about these sorts of things," he said.
Soler, of the Health Department, said it's understandable why people are frightened, especially when they see so many people around them getting cancer.
"I sympathize with their concern," he said. "But nonetheless, statistically, half of us, half of Minnesotans, will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. It's that high."
He noted that in Fridley, half of the "excess" cases in the past 10 years were lung cancer, which is almost always caused by smoking.
"We take these people's concerns seriously, both from a human level and a scientific level, too," he said. "You don't really know until you look."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384