High cancer rates in Russell and Lincoln counties, K-State will test water, air

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Researchers want to know why two counties in north-central Kansas have high cancer rates compared to the rest of the state.

According to K-State Research and Extension, Russell County has the fourth highest cancer mortality rate per 100,000 population and colorectal cancer rate. Lincoln County has the highest prostate cancer rate and the third-highest lung and bronchus cancer rate.

Researchers say they have checked for the usual culprits, such as high alcohol and tobacco use or limited colon cancer screenings, and those do not appear to be the reason for the high cancer rates.

Now, they want to check for other potential causes.

“We think that groundwater contamination and high radon levels might be at the center of the problem,” the Johnson Cancer Research Center at K-State said in a news release.

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Research in Russell, Lincoln and Ellsworth counties

The researchers will sample water and air in Russell, Lincoln and Ellsworth counties. Ellsworth County will serve as the control in the study. It is right next to Russell and Lincoln counties but does not have high cancer rates.

Radon is a radioactive gas often found in homes. It works its way up from the ground, through cracks in the foundation, and becomes trapped in homes. It is called a silent killer because you can’t see, taste or smell it.


One in four Kansas homes has high levels of radon. Click here for a map showing the counties that have higher radon levels. People in any Kansas county can get radon test kits through K-State county extension offices or SOSRadon.org. The website also includes how to reduce radon in your home.

The K-State researchers want to put radon test kits in the basements of homes in the three counties.

They also need to collect water samples from domestic wells in the three counties. Russell City Manager Jon Quinday said he spoke to one of the researchers and confirmed they would not be testing samples from public water systems.

“The researchers want to collect samples from domestic wells for trace elements, as most domestic wells are not tested regularly for contaminants,” Quinday said.

He pointed out that public water systems are already monitored for numerous contaminants like atrazine, coliform, asbestos, and pesticides.

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Town hall meetings

K-State’s Johnson Cancer Research Center is holding town hall meetings in each county toward the end of the month.

“Come learn more about how you can be a part of the solution to minimize cancer incidence and improve quality of life for our communities,” the town hall flyer says.

Residents are encouraged to attend the meetings to learn more about the research, groundwater contaminants in domestic wells, and radon in homes.

  • Monday, Feb. 26 at noon: Russell Regional Hospital classroom, 200 S. Main. Enter through the lobby door.

  • Monday, Feb. 26 at 6 p.m.: Finch Theatre, 122 E. Lincoln Avenue, Lincoln.

  • Tuesday, Feb. 27 at noon: Ellsworth Cunty Medical Center Admin Building, 1706 Aylward Avenue.

A light meal will be served at each location.

Getting the samples

Students in the K-State geology department will go to the three counties this spring and summer to collect water samples and distribute radon test kits.

The Johnson Cancer Research Center says the water analyses of the domestic wells may take a few months. When the results are in, the owners of the wells will get a water quality report in the mail so they will know if their water is safe to drink.

Homeowners who allow radon test kits to be placed in their homes will also get a copy of their test results.

When the whole project is concluded in the summer of 2025, K-State will share the results with the community.

Finding answers

The researchers hope to use the findings in several ways.

In the geology department, Dr. Karin Goldberg and Matt Kirk will analyze the data to investigate potential links with high cancer rates.

Dr. Helene Avocat, in the geography and geospatial sciences department, will look for connections between environmental factors and cancer types using Geographic Information System (GIS) and spatial analysis methods.

Shreepad Joglekar, in the art department, will use video and pictures to document stories of cancer survivors, family members and health professionals. Their stories would help raise awareness about the issue.

Who to contact

K-State’s Johnson Cancer Research Center is coordinating the project. You can reach the director, Dr. Sherry Fleming, by email at sdflemin@ksu.edu or by phone at 785-532-6130.

Dr. Goldberg is leading the water contamination research. Her email is kgoldberg@ksu.edu. Her phone number is 785-341-4454.

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