PLANT CITY – There are shortcomings: The community health survey wasn’t designed by an epidemiologist, the responses are anecdotal, the ailments unconfirmed.
The Tampa Tribune and WFLA, News Channel 8, survey of residents in the neighborhoods bordering Coronet Industries was an exercise in journalism, not science. We wanted to know what ailed people, not what caused it.
The survey represents the only effort to explore household by household the nature and extent of residents’ health complaints – complaints that spawned a yearlong environmental investigation by county, state and federal agencies.
We surveyed people living roughly within a quarter-mile of the Coronet phosphate processing plant, the same area health officials designated for environmental testing.
It addressed eight categories of reported illness that prompted health and environmental agencies to test the soil, air and water in an area known as Coronet Junction.
It also took lifestyles into account: Have you ever smoked? Are you on well water? If yes, how deep is the well?
The final tally excluded those who had lived in the neighborhood less than a year or whose medical conditions predated residence in the area.
Though unscientific, it provided a glimpse at the health problems experienced by people in the 250 households that met our criteria for inclusion. Our findings show:
* 25.2 percent of the households reported at least one person who has or had cancer.
* 39.2 percent reported chronic respiratory problems.
* 46.0 percent reported joint pain or spinal problems.
* 24.4 percent reported bone or teeth problems.
* 25.6 percent reported chronic rashes or other skin problems.
* 24 percent noted pets or livestock with unusual afflictions.
* 17.6 percent reported reproductive problems.
* 12.8 percent reported stomach or intestinal problems.
* 8.4 percent reported child developmental issues.
Epidemiologists say there is no way to compare the results of this informal survey with state and national averages arrived at through the use of stringent scientific methods.
“The data aren’t going to be comparable in any meaningful way,” said Michael Thun, vice president of epidemiology and surveillance research for the American Cancer Society.
But the numbers tell only part of the story.
The survey did not ask about stomach or intestinal problems, but people in 32 homes volunteered that information – a number we felt was high enough to warrant mention.
In at least one category, because of an omission in our survey, the numbers could be misleading.
We asked residents whether they had pets or livestock with unusual ailments but failed to first ask whether they owned pets or livestock.
In attempts to recontact the 190 respondents who answered “no” to the pet ailments question, we found 40 didn’t have animals and 33 did but noted no health problems with them; however, we were unable to determine whether the remaining 117 households own pets or livestock.
If we base our findings on 93 households where we were able to confirm animal ownership, 66.6 percent of those reported having dogs, cats, horses or cattle with unusual health problems.
If we factor in the 117 households where animal ownership is unknown, the rate of illness is diluted to 24 percent.
That figure, the most conservative, is the one we used in our final tally. The truth likely falls somewhere between.
Real People, Real Problems
Many people gave detailed accounts of multiple ailments that affected numerous members of the same household.
Take Elmer and Thelma Curtis, who have lived on Clemons Road for 14 years. In 1995, Elmer Curtis, then 59, was stricken with spinal cancer. Later the cancer reappeared in his abdomen. Curtis now is paralyzed and can’t work, but his wife said she’s just thankful he’s alive.
The Curtises say a grandson who lived across the street was born with a severely deformed foot. It has never been explained, they said. Their daughter, who used to live on nearby Camphor Drive, has severe joint problems. All three of the couple’s grandchildren have breathing problems.
Then there’s Doyle Prescott, who has lived on South Wiggins Road for 40 years. Prescott told a reporter that his two dogs, one 3 years old, the other 5, died of cancer. One of his daughters, now 26, has had cancer and fertility problems. His 22-year-old daughter has had chronic skin problems and joint pain.
It would take further research by health and environmental scientists to determine whether these are anomalies or part of a larger pattern.
There could be other factors at play, such as family histories, diet or lifestyle choices such as drinking and smoking. About a third of the 96 households that reported respiratory problems included smokers.
And Coronet, though cited numerous times during the past decade for environmental violations, is not the only potential source of dangerous pollution. There are at least two abandoned garbage dumps buried in the area.
The neighborhoods are within a largely agricultural region, leaving open the door for possible groundwater contamination by herbicides and pesticides. Also, large industries in the area might use harmful chemicals that could make their way into the environment, a state official has said.