Our Town, September 16, 2004
Upper East Side Responds to Breast Cancer Stats
Activist, Politicians Want Air Quality Monitor; Krueger Seeks EPA Action
Dorsey Kindler

In response to the unusually high number of breast cancer cases among Upper East Side women, East 79th Street Neighborhood Association President Betty Cooper Wallerstein has asked several state and city officials to request that an air quality monitor be put up along York Avenue.

The monitor would be used to determine if there is any link between the high rates of cancer and local air pollution.

Like several other communities in New York State, the Upper East Side has an incidence of breast cancer between 15 and 49 percent higher than would be expected in the state as a whole, an elevation not likely due to chance according to the New York State Department of Health. Unlike other clusters (many of which occur in industrial towns outside New York City) the Upper East Side is a residential area.

Dr. Joy Zagorin, a former neurologist with SUNY Stony Brook and a member of the neighborhood association, says that the area’s many hospitals could be to blame.

“York Avenue is known as bedpan row for all it hospitals and medical research facilities,” Zagorin said. “They’re dealing with bacteria, viruses and chemicals upon chemicals on a daily basis. The high incidence of breast cancer could be a result of hospital emissions, but until it’s measured how can anybody know?”

State Senator Liz Krueger has contacted the Environmental Protection Agency about the possibility of such a monitor and is awaiting a reply.

“I know such monitors are used to test air pollution from vehicle emissions, as well as incinerators, on a regular basis,” she says. “Trying to get an air quality monitor to measure output from hospitals is a trickier proposition because they’re traditionally thought of as a source of pollution.”

In October 2003, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released a set of 42 community health profiles sketching the state of the city’s health on a neighborhood level. The profiles showed that both the Upper East and Upper West sides had a 10 percent higher rate of cancer than New York City as a whole, but they didn’t provide neighborhood information about cancer types.

According to the New York State Department of Health, more women are being diagnosed with breast cancer in New York State because breast cancer is more common at older ages and women are living longer. White women are also more likely to get breast cancer than African-Americans, and the disease is more common among women with higher socioeconomic status. Scientists believe this may be related to delayed childbearing, fewer pregnancies, diet and possibly other factors shared by women in higher income groups. Improved early detection also contributes to the increased number of new breast cancer cases, according to the Department of Health.