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Cancer in Delaware: The Industrial Impact

Recently, the News Journal published an article about Delaware’s high lung cancer rate: the state ranks 17th in the nation for the number of men suffering from the disease and 3rd for women.

The article does point out that Delaware’s cancer rates have improved: in the 1990s Delaware’s cancer death rate was second in the country, but it is now 14th.

What is to blame for the Delaware’s high cancer rate?

According to the article smoking is the reason – about 20 percent of Delawareans still smoke. What the article fails to address is that many other factors can contribute to a state cancer’s rate.

Other factors include the presence of heavy industry in the state. For years, deadly products such as asbestos and benzene were used throughout Delaware, often at companies that were among the largest employers in the state. Even for those who did not work directly with these products, they often had secondhand exposure from contact with friends and family and also through environmental exposure (in the air and water).

Delaware was host to two companies who used massive amounts of asbestos in the manufacture of various products: Haveg in Marshallton and Amoco in New Castle. From the 1930’s to 1980, these plants used tons of raw asbestos that circulated freely around the working areas and blew out of windows into the community.

Several years ago the News Journal published a feature on several generations of one family that was devastated by cancer caused by asbestos at the Haveg plant. Many Delawareans have filed cases against asbestos manufacturers or have filed workers compensation actions after being diagnosed with cancer from asbestos. Many of these individuals never smoked in their lives.

Utah is another case in point that smoking is not necessarily the only factor that contributes to a state’s cancer rate.

Utah has the highest percentage of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) of any state in the country. Mormon theology forbids the use of tobacco, hence Utah has the lowest percentage of tobacco users of any state.

Despite this, Utah has an incredibly high cancer, due in part to the number of individuals who work in heavy industry, particularly uranium mines.

Not only have former miners gotten sick and died, but those lived near the mines, including many children have developed diseases like leukemia and lung cancer and ultimately died. Thousands of abandoned uranium mines still remain throughout the state.

So, while smoking certainly contributes to a state’s cancer rate, it is by far not the only factor.

It is too convenient for industry to blame the victim, the dying cancer patient, and ignore their contribution. Improvements in public health require more than simply changing personal lifestyles – corporate lifestyles also need to change, placing human health needs before profits.