In The Pipeline: A clean bill of health for neighborhood

Several weeks ago, I wrote about Machelle Murray, a local mom who is struggling to find answers about her insurance coverage as she battles cancer. The column prompted an outpouring of advice, support and even money for Murray.

It also brought several emails about something Murray referenced in my interview with her — the fact that she wondered if the infamous Ascon oil waste dump, located near her south Huntington Beach neighborhood, may have played a part in what seems like an inordinate amount of cancer cases in the area (which several readers over the years have written me about).

Back in the late 1930s, the site was used as a disposal site for toxic oil sludge from the many oil wells then in operation in Huntington Beach. In later years, it became the dumpsite for asphalt and concrete waste.

Most notable, to me, was this message I received: "I would love to talk to you about your article and HB/Cancer/ASCON. I've done some research to the point of getting a Cancer study done on our area from a Dr.@ USC. I have a copy of it and would like to share it with you."

That's how I got to know Jennifer Dreesen, who also lives in the area adjacent to Ascon. As she explained to me, when she moved into her neighborhood about five years ago, she, like many others, became concerned and aware that there seemed to be a high amount of brain cancer in the area. First she learned about a young child, then a young dad, and as the stories mounted and she heard about the history of the site, she decided to do something about it.

As she went about her research, someone at the Cancer Research Center suggested she reach out to Dr. Thomas Mack, master of public health and professor at USC.

She told me that her goal was to find some hard evidence about the area, so everyone there would know what they were actually dealing with. Mack offered to perform a scientific analysis, parts of which I will share right now.

Mack's report, dated Oct. 5, 2011, begins: "In response to the concern you have expressed about the occurrence of brain stem malignancy in the children of south Huntington Beach, particularly in respect to the Ascon dumpsite, I have examined the California Cancer Registry (CCR) records of central nervous system malignancies in children in Orange County and Huntington Beach."

And from there, he lays out a highly detailed, statistical analysis of what may — or may not be — happening in south Huntington Beach. Mack addresses, several times over and from various angles, the obvious issue of carcinogens. He charts the cancer rates throughout the rest of the county (and specifically throughout Huntington Beach).

One telling observation from the report: "Were carcinogens to have been emitted from a location in the midst of a residential community such as Huntington Beach, only the persons living right next to the point of emission would be subjected to a high level of exposure, because the concentration of any emission dissipates rapidly as it is diluted in the air, in geometric proportion to the distance from the site."

So were people's fears unfounded?

I asked Dreesen what her thoughts were before getting the results of the study, and she told me that either way, she felt the information would prove to be valuable in helping people deal with their fears.

By the end of the report (which, to be fair, is merely one report — I will be following up this column on what other experts have suggested), Mack's conclusion is clear:

"We are therefore left with no medical or biological explanation for either the overabundance of brain stem cancers in the children of southern Huntington Beach or the deficit of the same malignancies in northern Huntington Beach. The frequency is not increasing over time, and unless some new information comes to light, we must conclude that both of these discrepancies are due to chance. Even though it might seem so initially, chance is not completely outrageous as an explanation." (And he goes on to explain why that is.)

If you'd like to see the full report, please write to me. But the bottom line is that Mack's report seems to negate the possibility that the Ascon dumpsite is in fact causing an undue amount of cancer in the area.

Dreesen told me that she was satisfied to learn the results, and not just because it seemed to give her neighborhood a clean bill of health. "I'm happy because I think people can now exhale and relax a bit and not be fearful that they are doing their families harm by living here," she said. "I was anxious to share this report with as many people as I could just to alleviate fears."

I've no doubt it will take more than just this report to convince everyone — as it should be. But it is an important step, a step taken by a citizen who did what I wish more of us did: took it upon herself to make serious efforts to get to the bottom of something important.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at

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