An Iowa Farm County Seeks Answers Amid Cancer Rates 50% Higher than National Average

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Yves here. This article is a microcosm of the health costs of modern privileges, here cheap and plentiful food. Cancer is one disease that the US government, specifically the CDC and the National Cancer Institute, track well, allowing for the identification of cancer clusters like the one that is the focus of this article. Given the plausible-sounding belief by locals that the aggressive use of agricultural chemicals is the cause, one has to wonder how many places in the world there are also elevated levels of cancer, with less official recognition and hence less pressure to Do Something. But even so, articles on a cancer crisis in the Corn Belt seem not to be getting much traction. Is that because people in flyover are ever and always deplorables?

On top of that, there’s the question as to how much the chemical cocktail administered to crops and hence water supplies, also raises the baseline level of cancer in the public at large. Comparisons over time are an imperfect cross check (except in the case of marked changes) due to many confounders, such as changes in diet.

By Keith Schneider, a former New York Times national correspondent, is senior editor for Circle of Blue. He has reported on the contest for energy, food, and water in the era of climate change from six continents.) Co-published by The New Lede and Circle of Blue, as part of an ongoing series looking at how agricultural policies are affecting human and environmental health.) 

Raised in rural Iowa, 71-year-old Maureen Reeves Horsley once considered her tiny hometown in the northwest part of the state to be a blessed space. She recalls a time when the streams here ran clean and the lake water was clear.

The family farm where Horsley grew up was one of more than 1,200 farms in Palo Alto County in 1970.  In her memory, the county’s 13,000 residents enjoyed a thriving agricultural-based economy and close-knit neighbors. Cows grazed in verdant pastures. And seemingly endless acres of corn marched to the horizon.

“We had good crops, corn and soybeans,” Horsley said of her family’s farm along the West Fork of the Des Moines River. “You could make it on a small amount of farmland. You felt safe. It was a good life.”

Two generations later Emmetsburg and Palo Alto County have been radically transformed into a place where many residents worry that the farms that have sustained their livelihoods are also the source of the health problems that have plagued so many families.

Horsley, a certified nurse practitioner who still lives in the county, is among many Iowa residents who ask whether the farms that make up the lifeblood of Iowa’s economy have become a source of disease and death due to the toxic chemicals and other pollutants indelibly linked to modern agricultural practices.

“We drank the water on our farm,” Horsley said in an interview. “My sister had breast cancer. She was only 27 when she died. She grew up here. My other sister had uterine cancer. As a nurse practitioner I’m aware of five people now with pancreatic cancer. I know 20 people who have other cancers or died of cancer here. Look at the obituaries in our newspaper. Everybody is aware this is going on.”

Cancer Concerns Mounting

Palo Alto’s 2022 tally of 842 farms generates nearly $800 million in annual market value. But nearly 400 small farms have been absorbed into bigger operations or otherwise stopped operating over recent decades, and Palo Alto’s population has dropped by 4,200 people since 1970.

Today’s Iowa farms are largely focused on raising hogs and growing corn, both of which are linked to numerous environmental problems. Farmers growing corn, for example, often rely heavily on applications of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, while livestock operations generate millions of tons of manure annually. The chemicals and manure pollute food and water consumed by people even far from farm fields.

When nitrogen from fertilizer and manure combine with oxygen they create nitrates, which routinely drain from farm fields into groundwater, streams, and rivers, contaminating water sources. Babies can suffer severe health problems when consuming nitrates in drinking water, and a growing body of literature indicates potential associations that include an increased risk of cancer. Exposure to elevated levels of nitrates in drinking water has been linked by researchers to cancers of the blood, brain, breast, bladder and ovaries.

As well, there are years of research showing that many herbicides and other pesticides applied to farm fields are linked to cancers and other diseases. The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have been funding research to investigate the links between disease and farming for more than 30 years, focusing their work on people in Iowa and North Carolina. Among the findings are links between pesticides and malignant brain tumors, multiple myeloma, pancreatic cancer and certain breast cancers.

Concerns about connections between the farm pollutants and cancer have been mounting, particularly in Palo Alto County, which had the highest incidence of cancer of any county in the state and the second-highest incidence of cancer among all US counties, with 83 new cases of cancer on average each year, in a population of 8,996, according to a 2023 report by US News.

The five-year incidence rate for cancer in Palo Alto County is 658.1, far higher than the national five-year average of 442 new cancer cases reported for every 100,000 people, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The concerns are not limited to Palo Alto County: Iowa has the second-highest and fastest-rising cancer incidence among all US states, according to a 2024 report issued by the Iowa Cancer Registry. Cancer incidence in Iowa stayed mostly steady from 2001 to 2010, then dropped briefly before starting an upward climb after 2013, according to federal data.

Medical experts and state health authorities say it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what may be causing the prevalence of cancer in Palo Alto and Iowa overall. But many residents believe there is little doubt that the answers lie in the tide of farm pollutants pervading the environment.

“We are so heavily into agriculture in Iowa,” said Horsley said. “Big chemical use. Big nutrient applications. What effect is that having on people? There needs to be more research on that.”

“So Much Pain”

David Dunn and his wife, Sharon Kendall-Dunn, reside in the city of Davenport, Iowa, some 300 miles south and east of Palo Alto County. Still, they wrestle with their own concerns about the impacts farming and farm-related pollution may have on their health. Ten years ago the couple learned that a mass in David’s abdomen was non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a cancer common in farm country nationally.

Though the couple did not work or live on a farm, their doctor indicated the environment could be to blame. Sharon remembers that when she asked the doctor how her husband could have gotten the disease, he told the couple simply – “You live in Iowa.”

Two years ago Sharon was also diagnosed with cancer, a type called chronic myeloid leukemia, which begins in the bone marrow. So far, treatment has helped keep her disease under control.

“I was in so much pain,” she said. “It’s better now.”

David’s cancer is also undergoing treatment. But the impact on his life and his future has been dramatic.

“This is some kind of crazy,” said David. “I stopped dreaming. I stopped dreaming about retirement. I stopped dreaming about the kids graduating from college. I didn’t think I’d see them get married. I didn’t think I was going to hold a grandkid.”

Both Sharon and David grew up in Iowa. Other friends and family members have also been diagnosed with cancers, and some have died.

In the tiny farming town of Long Grove, Iowa, Chris Green mourns the 2019 death of her husband, who was stricken by the deadly brain cancer known as glioblastoma. With aggressive treatment, Jim Green lived nearly two years following his diagnosis but ultimately succumbed.

“He said to me, ‘You know, I can’t do this anymore.’” Chris recalled. “So we had hospice come in. Jim passed in the living room… surrounded by family.”

Before he died at age 65, Jim worked nearly 39 years on the maintenance staff of an aluminum plate rolling mill in Davenport. His exposures to various industrial chemicals there could have been a factor in his disease, but some studies also link pesticides, such as those used commonly on farms, to glioblastoma.

Chris said she knows of at least nine other people in her community who have died from glioblastoma in the last several years.

“What you’re seeing in Iowa is a problem,” said Molly Jacobs, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts. “You can see it from the experience on the ground. The message from me is to put energy into reducing exposure to the known harms.”

“We Need to Find Out What’s Going On”

The pesticides used on Iowa farmland are seen as a likely culprit for at least some of the cases, experts said.

“We have a very high percentage of our land that is growing crops,” said Dr. Richard Deming, an  oncologist in the state’s capital city of Des Moines. “The current way of growing crops is to use a lot of ag chemicals, which have improved the yield of crops. Is there, potentially, a downside? That’s where we really need to do more research. There is certainly circumstantial evidence that we’re probably exposed to more ag chemicals just because of the nature of Iowa, and the number of acres of Iowa that are under agricultural production.”

Living in a place with cancer rates nearly 50% higher than the national average prompted Linus Solberg, a farmer and Palo Alto County supervisor, to ask area health authorities for assistance in understanding the sources for disease and reducing risks. He said he knows state universities have studied the problem, but sees little being done to address the risks.

Solberg’s father developed prostate cancer, and his mother died at age 69 of ovarian cancer,  while his wife and three neighbors on his road also died of cancer.

“So that’s six right there on two miles along this road,” he said. “I don’t know if its pesticide, or electrical. We have all these windmills. I don’t know if it’s in the water. I have no idea.”

The county’s health authorities say they are expanding screening programs for breast, lung, prostate, and colon cancer, counseling residents on smoking and diet, and testing homes for radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas and a proven carcinogen.

“Organizationally, we’ve concentrated on early detection, and health and wellness,” said Jonathan Moe, chief executive officer of the Palo Alto County Health System.

The county also tests residential drinking water wells for contaminants under a state-funded program.

Ben Huntley, the environmental health specialist who manages the program, sampled 121 homes over the past 24 months. According to his records, three samples were above the 10 parts per million federal drinking water limits for nitrates.

The much larger hazards were E.coli bacteria – 30 samples above safety limits – and arsenic, a naturally occurring mineral and a carcinogen linked to lung, bladder, and kidney cancer – that exceeded the safety standard in 45 wells.

Settled by Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, Palo Alto County has endured bad crop years, the deep drought of the early 20th century, and the 1980s farm crisis. Now cancer is laying claim as an Iowa calamity.

“In the old days, the farmers lived longer lives if they didn’t die from an accident on the farm,” Horsley said. “Now everybody is getting checkups and finding out they have prostate cancer, or they’ve got glioblastoma, or they’ve got cancer in the lymph nodes. We need to find out what’s going on.”

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Some farmers can be pretty reckless in how they handle chemicals. Not far from us is a farm where we sometimes pick up some bales of hay and when you go there, they have an actual shed with a handwritten sign on it saying ‘Chemical Shed’. God know what sort of witch’s brew they have stored inside or how long it has been there but back in 2011 when some major floods went through, a lot of concern was raised about all the chemicals that were being swept out of farmer’s sheds and were being mixed in with the flood water. After that flood I noted an area where the grass was dying near that farm and I could only conclude that it was caused by some of those errant chemicals.

    1. petal

      Rev Kev, sounds like the farmer I worked for. He had an old, small decrepit camper parked on the property where he kept all of the chemicals. It wasn’t tidy, either. Total mess. He is now 92 and has had prostate cancer for a long time. I always tried to get him to use less spray dope but to no avail. He believed whatever his trusted spray dope dealer told him. Our local school was surrounded by orchards, so of course we all got healthy, regular doses of spray dope as kids. Riding the bus to/from home and the windows were open-more spray dope. My grandmother’s house was across the road from an orchard, so more spray dope. Drive down Lake Road-gotta close the car windows because they’d be spraying. Couldn’t avoid it. Most of these farmers only have a HS education, and they weren’t exactly good students, either. They knew they’d be inheriting the family farm so they didn’t have to put forth a lot of effort academically. The use of massive amounts of chemicals goes on, and they get all defensive about it. They have no interest in learning or understanding the problems these cause. I laugh(and cry) at the trope about farmers caring for the land. Totally the opposite. If people only knew. And this is all directly along the southern shore of Lake Ontario and in the Finger Lakes region of NYS.

    2. Big River Bandido

      Not all farmers are so careless; quite a few know exactly what’s going on. My grandfather farmed in Iowa County for 70 years. When one of his friends took a job at a pesticide plant in the 1980s my grandfather warned him he was courting a cancer diagnosis, which came a decade later.

      It never seems to penetrate the bad stories in the Eastern media about “genetic engineering”. But midwestern farmers know why it’s such a problem: pesticide manufacturers were also the hybrid developers, and the purpose of the hybrids was to withstand the ever-more-potent chemical pesticides. Yummy! The resulting increase in cancers nationwide is really no surprise to those closest to farming.

  2. Candide

    In the semi-agricultural county in North Carolina where I live there is a mixture of organic and standard agriculture, with principles of recycling colliding with epidemiological realities. Sewage sludge from water treatment plants is applied for free wherever a farmer hasn’t been hassled by environmentally active neighbors.

  3. Louis Fyne

    this is a problem that can be investigated by talented high school seniors and lots of $$$$$.

    step 1: give 500 households 10 years of distilled water or pipe their homes with a $$$ reverse osmosis water filtration system.

    step 2: observe/test the hypothesis that it’s the water.

    as for us, city folk….water is usually the 2nd or 1st ingredient in canned and bottled foods-drinks. Federal and state H2O standards are a joke, even “clean,” compliant water can be full of nitrites, nitrates, natural radioactive elements, PFAS, etc.

    I’ve always wondered if the water in processed food is a significant cancer vector. no studies either way (that i am aware of)

    1. Louis Fyne

      I avoid water in proccessed food whenever possible, eg preferring frozen-fresh produce over canned, juice not from concentrate, or dumping all the water from canned corn, no more tomato juice, etc.

      the tap water aroundme is pretty good, apart from some natural chromium, but still…

      even the kids got their baby formula made only with distilled water….Very happy with the unscientific results.

      at worst, I am a paranoid loon.

      ps, you can try it at home too, many options. on the expensive side, a whole hpuse reverse osmosis system. or a literal copper still. or a jug from the Mega-LoMart for $1.29 (i’d rather take my chances with microplastics over nitrates)

  4. Paul Art

    Norman Borlaugh’s gift keeps on giving? I read this article a long time back in another Indian publication:
    and it describes what happened/is happening in Punjab after India dived headlong into Borlaugh’s technique of multiplying yields several times over with heavy application of nitrogen and fertilizers starting in the 1960s. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at that time was a great fan of this. In 2017 when we were shopping for a house in Indiana we avoided lots close to farms. During the planting season you can smell the pesticide. When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter in California we used to walk past an orchard not knowing that they were applying pesticides – never knew what that smell was very much later. They should have posted signs of danger but they never did and never do even now. Our first daughter was born with heart defects. As a student in Indiana in 1990 my close friend and I used to drink the water straight from the tap – being freshly arrived from India we thought everything in America was pristine. His son was born with a neurological problem. He would freeze for milliseconds or longer regularly, staring into space and would have no recollection of what happened when the attack passed. My poor friend struggled with this for a very long time subjecting his son to various kinds of experimental treatments. I have always wondered if both our children being born with problems was linked to the Indiana water or the California Silicon Valley pollution (both of us went to work in Silicon Valley after graduation in 1993). As far as Iowa is concerned I doubt if they will do anything about it soon. I am sure any hint of regulation of pesticides will have the GOP faithful up in arms since they are now locked into the industrial farming model and changing anything will sharply affect yields.

    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      If yields went sharply down, would prices go sharply up? How about if we legally restored our Sovereign Economic Right to Protectionism and banned foreign corn/soy/etc. from entering our country? Would the price of domestic corn/soy/etc. go up as yields go down? ( And if anyone says . . . but then foreign countries would have the equal and opposite right to ban American corn/soy/etc. from entering their countries! then I would say . . . “what’s wrong with that? That’s how we kill, destroy and exterminate Forcey FreeTrade all around the world. Or at least set America free of it if the rest of the world wants to stay enslaved by the International Free Trade Conspiracy).

      Anyway, there are some farmers using various forms and variations of eco-bio-organic methods and claiming yields comparable to their cancer juice neighbors.

      Gabe Brown . . . Gary Zimmer . . . and few enough others that I could remember their names if my memory were better. They are out there. Has anyone been able to debunk their claims about their methods? Or their yields? Or both? If not, then why all the opposition by mainstream cancer-juice-method growers to adopting Zimmer-Brown-etc. methods?

      ” Better Dead than Green! ” . . . eh?

  5. Eclair

    Fun facts from the website, Iowa Corn. Forget the cozy narrative of rural Iowa farm families growing food for the hungry. 62% of Iowa dent corn goes to ethanol production. Which is heavily subsidized by the government, so the incentives for farmers to increase their dent or field corn acreage are huge.

    15% is used for animal feed: beef, pork, chicken.

    Much of the remaining corn is used for our favorite, high fructose corn syrup, as well as corn oil. Fun fact: one bushel of corn can sweeten 400 cans of soda pop.

    Oh, and the University of Iowa estimates that 90% of the food that Iowans eat is imported from other states. Your carrots, spinach, tomatoes, oranges, blueberries, apples, pecans, etc.

    Recent estimates of energy inputs to outputs for ethanol production, indicate that the process is becoming more efficient. However, none of these studies seem to factor in the early deaths from cancer. More of those pesky ‘externalities.’

  6. redleg

    Individual chemicals cause problems, but I’d look at combinations of chemicals. Atrazine, Alochlor, etc., just to pick two more or less randomly, have known effects when ingested or inhaled. But what about when they are combined? mixed with hydraulic oil and anhydrous ammonia? It gets complicated and difficult to research.

  7. DorothyT

    Iowa? Florida’s beautiful, ‘clear’ springs are just the same. Friend’s family has spent much time annually in a cottage on the Rainbow River (Marion County). Read this: “Too Polluted to Drink”
    Cancer: friend just had bladder and prostate removed. Yes, removed (neobladder ‘created’). Also, highly measurable degree of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found, also high nitrates, in water, soil, even higher in water bottled in FL per this research. Agricultural/pesticide impact.

  8. zapster

    Add to the above that wheat farmers now use weed killer to harvest wheat. By killing the wheat while it is still standing the straw dries without being turned before baling. Unfortunately, organic gardeners then can no longer use the straw for mulch, and the wheat is saturated with roundup.

  9. steppenwolf fetchit

    Here’s an article from University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension about various methods for pre-harvest drydown of wheat, including prespray with glyphosate, in case you might want to consider that approach.

    They have a table of “advantages versus disadvantages” of glypho prespray versus swathing. I notice that in the “disadvantages” on the glypho side, residue in wheat grain and straw is nowhere mentioned as a disadvantage. Eaters of wheat who consider glypho in their wheat to be a disadvantage will have to buy certified organic wheat or else grow their own personal wheat without using glypho to pre-dry it down.

  10. dao

    I’m retiring there next year. It’s one of the few areas of the country that still has affordable housing (that is, affordable for the wages of the area).

    Farming is not as extensive in the northeast because of the hills (Drifltess area). Farming is more extensive in the Wisconsin Driftless (per satellite maps).

    I plan to not only have a whole house water filter but also to have reverse osmosis for drinking. You can absorb chemicals through the skin so even the shower water has to be filtered.

    When I lived there before, most natives had no problem drinking the tap water (I thought it tasted awful). I always thought it was funny to see all the Hispanic immigrants lining up to get bottled water from the machines in the supermarkets.

    1. dao

      Update for anyone still reading. I was led to believe that Decorah, Iowa was in a region with significant organic farming, but when I looked up the statistics from Winneshiek County where Decorah is located, I was disappointed to see only 2% of the farms are organic.

      1. steppenwolf fetchit

        If only 2% of the customer base is organic, how can any more than 2% of the farms be organic? If the organic customer base wants to be an organic movement, it will try and figure out how to recruit more food buyers-and-eaters into its ranks by showing them how ” every dollar is a bullet on the field of economic combat” and that more organic food buyers is what can permit more farmers to go organic or more organic growers to enter the field.

        If 5% of the overall customer base was organic, would that be able to support 5% of the farms being organic? It seems worth a try to see if it works that way.

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