Disease Clusters - Coincidence or Toxic Contamination?

Alarming rates of diseases in 42 U.S. communities

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Three 14-year-old boys in Prairie Grove, Arkansas were diagnosed with testicular cancer between 1997 and 2001. And those weren’t the only cases of the disease in this small town of 2,500.

Dozens of Marines living on base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina have been diagnosed with breast cancer – a total of 64 men.

In The Acreage, a small rural community in Florida, 18 children are living with brain cancer and three with brain cysts.

These are just three of the 42 communities in 13 states described in Health Alert: Disease Clusters Spotlight the Need to Protect People from Toxic Chemicals, a report published by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Disease Clusters Alliance.

The towns studied are experiencing what’s known as "disease clusters” – very high incidences of serious health issues – everything from birth defects and multiple sclerosis to all types of cancers.

All of these communities are located close to some form of toxic chemicals or environmental pollution, coming from various types of agricultural, manufacturing or industrial operations. And while the statistics are alarming and the health impacts tragic, there are no concrete conclusions as to the exact causes for these shocking disease rates.

What are Disease Clusters?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a cluster is an unusual collection of health events that are grouped together in time and space and that is reported to a public health department. The recent report gets more specific: “An unusually large number of people sickened by a disease in a certain place and time is known as a ‘disease cluster’.

Clusters of cancer, birth defects, and other chronic illnesses have sometimes been linked to chemicals or other toxic pollutants in local communities, although these links can be controversial.”

The study looked at known clusters located in thirteen states - Texas, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas.

These clusters occurred after 1976, when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was enacted.

This law is supposed to ensure the safety of commercial and consumer products containing industrial chemicals by regulating the use and disposal of those chemicals. The report suggests that law has been a failure.

“As a result, dangerous chemicals, including those known to cause cancer, birth defects, and learning and developmental disabilities are still used widely with few, if any, restrictions.

These include many of the chemicals which have been linked to some disease clusters, including TCE, dioxins and asbestos. Better testing and regulation of the thousands of toxic chemicals,” the report concluded.

Tragic Consequences of Disease Clusters

Here are more examples of known disease clusters:

  • Kettelman City, CA – severe birth defects ranging from cleft palates and facial deformities to heart and lung problems; several of the children have since died
  • Hinkley, CA – in the case made famous by Erin Brockovich, which was turned into a movie of the same name, people had cancers, Hodgkin’s disease, miscarriages and spinal problems
  • Amelia, LA – a specific type of brain cancer – neuroblastomas
  • Herculaneum, MO – Lou Gehrig’s disease cluster identified
  • Schuylkill, PA – a rare form of blood cancer – polycythemia vera

“And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Gina Solomon, Senior Scientist with National Resources Defense Council. “In the states we haven't studied yet, we have already heard of dozens more disease clusters, so the problem is widespread,” Solomon writes in her blog.

A Legislative Solution

Today, local and state agencies and health departments collect disease data. The report urges more oversight: “There is a need for better documentation and investigation of disease clusters to identify and address possible causes.

Meanwhile, toxic chemicals should be identified and controlled through reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, so these chemicals don’t pollute communities and sicken people."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Iowa) have introduced a bill known as Trevor's Law, named for a young brain cancer survivor, Trevor Schaefer. This legislation would increase coordination between state and federal agencies to investigate potential disease clusters.

Testifying before the Committee on Environmental and Public Works on March 29, 2011, environmental advocate, Erin Brockovich, voiced her support for this bill.

“This is the issue of our time – whether it is pollution in our water, our air or products we use every day. The government must play a stronger, better role in helping all Americans.”

Review Date: 
April 1, 2011