Is Bristow, Oklahoma, Experiencing a Cancer Epidemic?

Bristow, Oklahoma, residents believe their town is having a cancer epidemic.

Bristow, Oklahoma, residents believe their town is having a cancer epidemic.

Many people in Bristow, a small Oklahoma town 30 miles southwest of Tulsa, will tell you their town is experiencing an alarming rate of cancers and death.

The statistics do not readily confirm their concerns. Federal and state agencies aren’t saying much about the problem. Even the media has not paid much attention.

But many residents are certain there is “a cancer epidemic in Bristow,” to quote the Facebook page of Cancer Answers for Bristow, an online community begun in 2012 that has 848 “likes.”

“Bristow is being ravaged by cancer,” the Facebook page says. “Please lift Bristow, Oklahoma, up in prayer and ask God to remove cancer from our town.”

Our mesothelioma and asbestos attorneys learned about the Bristow situation from a friend of a friend, a Bristow native who gave a dramatic description of the problem. I was intrigued and did some online research, but I didn’t find much. The only news organization that has covered the problem is Fox 23 in Tulsa, which did three short blurbs in November 2013 and nothing more since.

One Fox news clip said “hundreds have been diagnosed and many have died from sometimes rare cancers” in Bristow, and that the people there “are worried and wondering why so many are sick.” One resident told a reporter, “Seems like every week we were attending funerals.”

What’s Going On?

The closest the government has come to acknowledging the problem is to declare an area on the outskirts of Bristow a Superfund clean-up site. In December, the EPA added a 125-acre parcel northeast of Bristow to the Superfund list. Superfund sites are places where the ground is so contaminated with industrial waste and toxic substances that the federal government steps in to compel a clean-up.

The site was the location of two oil refineries from 1915 to 1965. The refineries were operated by the defunct Wilcox Oil Co. An Environmental Protection Agency news release says the site has contaminants, including lead and polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons, which the agency says can cause cancer, reproductive problems and skin problems.

“Recent investigations (2009-2011) indicate the site area contains elevated concentrations of metals and organic compounds,” the EPA news release said. “… A large volume of visible waste is present … There are multiple areas of stressed vegetation, barren areas, and visible black tarry waste of a hydrocarbon nature.”

First Assembly of God has a church building and parsonage near the former refineries. The church property was once valued at more than $1 million, but is now worthless. The church stopped meeting in its building last fall and has been moving from rented location to location, putting a positive spin on things by declaring itself the “Church Without Walls.”

When a site goes on the Superfund list, the first step is a two-year investigation of the contamination. Meanwhile, the EPA attempts to identify any existing entity that has liability for the property. If no responsible party is found, the federal government pays for the cleanup. Translation: If will be several years (if ever) before the contaminated site is cleaned up.

Looking at the Numbers

One Bristow resident says she has compiled a list of 950 cancers, unusual health problems and early deaths that have occurred in Bristow during the last decade.

There is an abundance of cancer data available online from the CDC, National Cancer Institute and other agencies. However, those public databases do not drill down below the county level. Statistics that focus exclusively on a small town like Bristow, population 4528 in 2010, are hard to come by.

Bristow residents comprise only 6% of the population of Creek County. Do county statistics point to a possible problem in Bristow? Not really.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provide a mortality database covering the 12-year period from 1999-2010. Since Bristow residents believe their “epidemic” has been going on for at least a decade, that’s a good time period to look at.

According to the CDC data, Creek County’s death rate and incidence of cancer is only slightly higher than the statewide rates.

Mortality Rate: All Causes; Caused by Cancer

1999-2010 Ave. pop. Ave. deaths (annual) Deaths per 1,000 (annual) Cancer (malignant neoplasm) deaths (annual) Cancer deaths per 1,000 (annual)
Creek County 68,199 742 10.9 168 2.5
Oklahoma 3.6 million 35,579 10.0 7,674 2.2

The above table looks at cancer deaths. What about all incidence of cancer?

The National Cancer Institute offers State Cancer Profiles. According to that database, six other Oklahoma counties have a higher incidence of cancer. The incidence of cancer is a bit higher in Creek County than statewide, and the statewide rate is a bit higher than the national rate. But there are no startling anomalies in these numbers.

2006-2010 Ave. incidence of cancer (annual) Incidence rate: per 1,000 (annual)
Creek County 415 5.1
Oklahoma 18,695 4.7
U.S. 1.5 million 4.5

According to that table, Creek County had about 4,150 incidents of cancer during the last 10 years. Since Bristow is 6% of Creek County, it would be expected to have about 250 cancers during that 10-year period. So, if the concerned citizens group really does have a list of 950 Bristow residents with cancer diagnoses, that is almost four times what the government statistics reveal. Which would raise the question: Why aren’t all of Bristow’s cancers showing up on the databases?

As an attorney, I have been trained to evaluate problems from the perspective of what can be proven. Anecdotal evidence is not enough; statistics matter. But all those statistics represent real people. In a small town where everyone knows everyone, each serious illness and death impacts the entire community.

I hope my fellow Oklahomans just up the turnpike in Bristow find their answers, and I wish them well.