CORVALLIS - A multi-agency task force looking for the cause of an unusually high rate of cancer in trout at an Oregon State University research laboratory this spring is continuing to investigate the problem.

A fact sheet has been published to help area residents better understand the situation and what steps the task force is taking to address it.

The fact sheet is available by calling John McEvoy, Linn County Health Department, 541-967-3821; Robert Wilson, Benton County Health Department, 541-766-6841; or Duncan Gilroy, Oregon Health Division, 503-731-4015.

The Department of Environmental Quality recently tested the lab's well water and found no contaminants. Testing of tissues from the affected fish revealed no clues either, said Larry Curtis, chair of the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at OSU and chair of the task force.

"It is very possible that what has triggered the two episodes that we know about is intermittent - and conceivably related to seasonally high water," Curtis said. "We may have a better shot at identifying the contaminant if we get a period of unusually wet weather."

In December of 1998, a contaminant killed thousands of rainbow trout in the OSU research lab, located one mile east of Corvallis off Highway 34. This spring, researchers at the lab discovered a number of symptoms in the fish, including high mortality, altered growth, anemia and other physical deformities. After conducting autopsies, they discovered cancerous tumors at a rate 100 times higher than normal.

The university immediately notified the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Health Division, and the Linn and Benton county health departments. A task force comprised of representatives of those agencies and OSU was formed.

"It may be quite a while before we have the information we need to fully evaluate the potential health risks," said Grant Higginson, health officer with the Oregon Health Division in Portland. "Until more facts are known, we are encouraging people with private wells in the area to consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking, as a precaution."

The task force is continuing to investigate the water source and fish tissues. Scientists also are studying the shallow aquifer that provides well water to the area.

Gilroy, state toxicologist for the OHD, coordinated the publication of the fact sheet.

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Duncan Gilroy, 503-731-4015