No one wants to downplay the seriousness of drug addiction and the multiple ways it can impact our communities. As a threat to both health and community safety, the dangers can hardly be overstated.
At the same time, so much has been written in the past year, particularly about the opioid crisis, that public health officials and elected leaders alike may be in danger of overlooking other long-term, persistent threats to local communities’ health and wellness. People may be tempted to conclude that, apart from pain medication, their communities are reasonably healthy.
On the opioid front, the most recent statistics for Nassau County show a modest decline in fatalities after they reached a high point in 2015. In Elmont, deaths fell in 2016, from three cases to none, but rose again to three in 2017. Arrests in the community were up significantly, from seven in 2016 to 17 last year.
And opioids aren’t the only dangerous drugs on the market. Despite the relatively low rate of fatalities, no one should think the danger is lessening, particularly with the increasingly common practice of cutting heroin with fentanyl, a high-powered narcotic many times more potent than its fellow traveler.
These alarming statistics, however, can obscure much more prevalent and persistent killers in the local population. Incidences of breast, lung and prostate cancers remained far higher in Elmont than the national averages, according to Nassau County’s “Community Health Assessment and Community Health Improvement Plan 2016-2018.”
Elmont, for example. showed 256 new cases of prostate cancer for the four-year period covered in the report, a rate that was 50 percent higher than anticipated, based on previous years, and between four and five times the national average.
Based on that average, a community the size of Elmont should have seen between 15 and 20 new cases per year, or perhaps 60 for the entire period covered. Incidences of breast cancer were similarly elevated. Where the community could have expected perhaps 15 new cases a year, based on its population and the national average, the figure was closer to 40, or 154 cases for the entire four years. Lung cancer also occurred at roughly three times the national rate, with a total of 139 new cases in four years.
It was unclear what accounted for this, and a single report, even one issued by county health authorities, could not be taken as positively conclusive. Nassau County as a whole did have a slightly higher incidence of most cancers than the state average, but nothing like the multiples seen in Elmont.
The authors of the report from which these figures were taken made no attempt to explain or even question why Elmont should have such high occurrences of so many different kinds of cancers, while incidences of these same cancers in the neighboring community of Franklin Square, for example, were at or below the same averages.
Figures for diabetes remained slightly lower than the state average, and somewhat unexpectedly showed no significant differences among the community’s ethnic makeup. Nationally, juvenile and adult-onset diabetes occur at higher rates among African-Americans than among any other group except Native Americans.
Of the most common health issues, though, obesity continued at high levels, particularly among school-age children. Roughly 33 percent of all school-age children were overweight to some degree, according to a report issued by the New York State Department of Health. The highest rates of obesity — 82 percent — were seen in children who watched two or more hours of television a day. Roughly 15 percent of adults of all ages were overweight, according to department figures.
The reports were striking in a number of ways. First, none of the reports from county or state health authorities contained up-to-date data of the kind easily available from the local police precinct. It was a simple matter to get statistics through the end of last year for arrests and overdoses for every area of Nassau County, almost down to the street level.
The figures contained in the most recent reports for cancer were more than four years old, despite the cover information claiming the reports were from 2016-18. The same was true for the figures on obesity. These classes of information are not collected in the same way. Where police record arrests in real time, diagnosis and treatment of serious illnesses is a longer process. Still, doctors themselves input data nearly as rapidly as law enforcement.
Personnel have been cut in the county health department and budgets reduced in that period. Health department officials had not responded to requests for comment by press time.
The Herald began its investigation after hearing persistent reports of what local residents termed “cancer zones” in their community. Evidence collected by their own county government seems to bear out their claims.