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Study finds higher rates of liver cancer, low birthweights near toxic site in northeast Wichita

The Northeast Millair neighborhood sits directly south of a chemical spill at a rail yard at 29th and Grove.
Trace Salzbrenner
Wichita Beacon
The Northeast Millair neighborhood sits directly south of a chemical spill at a rail yard at 29th and Grove.

Almost 30 years after its discovery, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment conducted a health survey in several historically Black neighborhoods located above contaminated groundwater.

Rates of liver cancer and low birthweights are higher among people living above a toxic groundwater plume northeast of downtown Wichita, a new health study by the state of Kansas finds.

Contaminated groundwater plume
Kansas Department of Health and Environment
The plume of contaminated groundwater spreads 2.9 miles south of the rail yard.

The source of the contamination is the Union Pacific railyard at 29th and Grove, which has a chemical in its soil and groundwater known as trichloroethene. Trichloroethene (TCE) is associated with a variety of health outcomes, including liver cancer and low infant birthweights.

Whether TCE contamination caused the health disparities for people living above the plume is uncertain.

The chemical has infiltrated a 2.9-mile long plume of groundwater south of the rail yard site, through several of Wichita's historically Black neighborhoods. The groundwater is separate from the city’s public water supply, which is safe to drink.

In a study of 2,793 households living above the groundwater plume, residents of the area were diagnosed with liver cancer at almost twice the rate of Sedgwick County as a whole between 2009 and 2019.

Aujanae Bennett is president of the Northeast Millair Neighborhood, directly south of the Union Pacific railyard. She said her father lived in the area and received a kidney cancer diagnosis in 2009. It later migrated to his liver, and he died in 2016.

“So I don’t know … if that plays into this or not,” Bennett said.

Farah Ahmed, an environmental health officer and state epidemiologist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, authored the report. She said the study identifies health anomalies among those living above the groundwater plume but cannot say whether TCE exposure caused those disparities.

“Whether or not contaminants in general cause specific people harm really depend on a lot of different risk factors,” Ahmed said. “It's going to depend on how much a person was exposed to, how long were they exposed, how were they exposed?

“Other kind of factors that play into whether a person has health effects include that person's age, their sex, their diet, their family traits, their family medical history, their general lifestyle and exposure to other cancer-causing agents.”

Elizabeth Ablah is a professor in the Department of Population Health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. She noted that social determinants of health – such as economic stability, education and neighborhood – also can play a role in chronic conditions like cancer and birth outcomes.

“Regardless of the source, there is a huge disparity,” Ablah said of the study’s results. “And that on its own is an important finding that the community will be interested in and needs to know.”

The state found disparities in liver cancer rates by race within the plume. The rate of liver cancer among non-Hispanic Black people in the area was more than twice the rate compared to the same population in the state. The rate of liver cancer among non-Hispanic white people in the plume did not differ significantly from white people in the state.

The report noted that minority and low-income populations experience disparities in access to health care screening and treatment services.

“Although we can't report on all of the potential risk factors, one of the known potential risk factors for cancers and a lot of different chronic diseases is race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status,” Ahmed said. “We tend to always look at cancer rates by race and ethnicity.”

The study also found that the rate of babies with low birthweights born to mothers living in the plume was significantly higher than the rate in Wichita, Sedgwick County and Kansas.

KDHE looked at birthweight from 2000 to 2021. Ahmed said that although the rate of low birthweight was higher within the plume, it has been shrinking over the last two decades.

The study reviewed a myriad of other health issues associated with TCE exposure, including rates of kidney cancer, urinary bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and birth defects. The state didn’t find any other notable health disparities amongst those living near the groundwater plume. Some – including kidney and urinary cancers – showed up with less frequency in the plume than among the city of Wichita.

To complete the study, the state relied on pre-existing data sources: the Kansas Cancer Registryand birth defects reported to the KDHE’s Bureau of Family Health. But the cancer registry only captures data on a person’s address at the time of diagnosis. If a resident moved away from the site and was later diagnosed with cancer, it would not be included in the study.

Another limitation is that much of the birth defect reporting system relies on doctors and self-reporting instead of proactive data collection by the state. Due to this, reports of birth defects are missing and the ones reported are considered to only be probable and not confirmed.

Residents living above the groundwater plume learned about the TCE spill last fall, when the state shared a draft of its clean-up plan. As details about the spill came to light, many requested a health study to understand how it impacted the community.

The KDHE said that it only knows of one private residence that uses contaminated groundwater wells instead of the city’s water for drinking and bathing. But other community members say their childhood was interspersed with memories of well water.

“As a child, many of those homes had wells,” said Lavonta Williams, a former City Council member for the district impacted by the contamination, said in a meeting Thursday. “And yes – we drank the water, we played in the water, we swam in the water, and we watered fruits and vegetables with the water.”

The city of Wichita discovered the spill in 1994, when it began redeveloping East 21st Street. The KDHE began inspecting the site and identified Union Pacific as the source in 1998. State officials do not know when exactly the spill occurred but estimate it took place in the 1970s or 1980s.

Bennett, who lives in the neighborhood, said that because of the longstanding nature of the spill, she wished the state’s study would study cancer rates from before 2009.

“I appreciate what they’ve done, but I feel like they need to go back further because the concentrations of that chemical were higher at that time,” Bennett said.

Ahmed said that the study took into account that it takes “several years” for chemical contamination to seep into groundwater. Ten to 40 years can then elapse between when someone is exposed to a cancer-causing substance and the development of diagnosable cancer.

Ablah, the public health expert, said questions about why the state only studied cancers from 2009 to 2019 are valid.

“I get that they're thinking that it could be anywhere from 10 to 40 years between exposure and the development of symptoms,” Ablah said. “However, that's all the more reason that we need to be looking at earlier data. And they had access to earlier data. So if it were me, I would want to look.”

The Kansas Cancer Registry has data starting in 1998. The health study does not estimate when the spill took place, only saying it was “thought to have occurred at some point prior to 1994.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.