Cancer Registries: Investigating Possible Cancer Causes

Aerial view of a rural road in North Dakota

Cancer registry data can be used to investigate possible causes of cancer.

Sometimes it seems like a lot of people who live in a certain area are getting cancer, and people wonder if something in the environment might be causing it. Or there may be something in the environment that is known to cause cancer, and public health officials want to find out if it really is. In both cases, cancer registry data can help.

The following examples show how cancer registries in CDC’s National Program of Cancer Registries are using their data to investigate possible causes of cancer.

Kentucky: Smoking Isn’t the Only Cause of High Lung Cancer Rates

People who live in the Appalachian region of Kentucky are more likely to get lung cancer than people who live in other areas of the state. Arsenic and chromium, two metals that are known to cause cancer, occur naturally in this area. Scientists found that people who live there have higher levels of arsenic and chromium in their toenails than people who live elsewhere in the state.

The Kentucky Cancer Registry made a map showing where lung cancer rates are highest in the state. This map was compared to a map showing where arsenic and chromium levels are highest in the state. The maps were similar, showing a possible link between exposure to the metals and lung cancer.

West Virginia: Chemical Raises Risk of Testicular and Kidney Cancers

A company in West Virginia was sued for releasing the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid into drinking water. The West Virginia Circuit Court approved a class-action settlement agreement that required a science panel to find out if the chemical caused disease in the community. The West Virginia Cancer Registry shared data with the panel, which found that exposure to the chemical raised a person’s risk of getting testicular and kidney cancer, but no other kinds of cancer.

As a result, a medical panel was set up to monitor the health of community members.

Illinois: Did a Polluted Well Cause Cancer in a Small Village?

For more than 20 years, residents in Crestwood, a small village in Cook County, Illinois, unknowingly drank water contaminated with cancer-causing substances because village officials secretly used a polluted well.

The Illinois State Cancer Registry looked at all cancer cases in Crestwood from 1994 to 2006, and found more than the expected number of cases of lung cancer in men and women, as well as more than the expected number of kidney, mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, and rectum cancers in men. Although the registry couldn’t say for sure that the polluted well caused these cancers, the well water probably contributed to them.

North Dakota: Is Road Gravel Dangerous?

Erionite gravel, an asbestos-like mineral used to pave roads in some counties in North Dakota, can cause mesothelioma, a rare and deadly kind of lung cancer. The North Dakota Statewide Cancer Registry made a map showing the counties where people lived who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Experts from CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency looked at the map and found that no one with mesothelioma lived in the counties where the roads had been paved with erionite gravel. But since mesothelioma takes about 30 years to develop after exposure, the registry will keep looking for any possible link between the gravel and mesothelioma.