Disease Clusters: Federal Help Needed To Confirm Existence, Determine Sources
WASHINGTON (March 29, 2011) – Confirming disease clusters and finding their causes are extremely difficult, but better federal coordination and federal assistance for state and local officials and citizens could help do both, according to Dr. Gina Solomon, NRDC senior scientist who testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today.
Drawing from research by federal, state, or local officials and peer-reviewed studies from academics, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Clusters Alliance have identified 42 disease clusters in 13 states in an issue paper submitted to the committee today.
In the study, state-by-state fact sheets cover confirmed clusters of numerous types of cancer, birth defects, and other chronic illnesses as well as several currently under investigation by federal, state or local health agencies. The groups looked at clusters that have occurred since 1976 when Congress passed the Toxic Substance Control Act, or TSCA, legislation designed to regulate the use of toxic chemicals in industrial, commercial and consumer products.
“Communities all around the country struggle with unexplained epidemics of cancers, birth defects, and neurological diseases,” said Solomon, co-author of the issue paper. “The faster we can identify such clusters, and the sooner we can figure out the causes, the better we can protect residents living in the affected communities.”
Solomon testified at an oversight hearing on “Disease Clusters and Environmental Health.” Other witnesses included Erin Brockovich, who became a household name when her fight to document a disease cluster in the tiny town of Hinkley, California was turned into a major motion picture, and Trevor Schaefer, a 21-year old survivor of brain cancer from Boise, Idaho. Schaefer and his family have created a foundation that has been fighting for better investigations into the causes of cancer clusters.
Solomon discussed the paper: “Health Alert: Disease Clusters Spotlight the Need to Protect People from Toxic Chemicals.” This is the first installment of a plan to review all 50 states. In the first study, NRDC and NDCA looked at clusters in Texas, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas.
In only one of the 42 clusters -- in Libby, Montana-- was a specific source of chemical contamination identified: asbestos. In many communities, such as Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the case grows stronger that documented exposure to toxics has harmed the health of community residents.
“Communities deserve to have confidence that disease clusters will be found and that their concerns will be adequately addressed,” said Terry Nordbrock, executive director of the National Disease Clusters Alliance and co-author of the issue paper. “And given the bipartisan support for the proposed ‘Trevor’s Law’ to reform the way we respond to disease clusters, communities have a new reason to hope.”
Investigations into environmental causes of disease clusters are complex, expensive, and often inconclusive, partly due to limitations of scientific tools for investigating cause-and-effect in small populations.
The groups support legislation introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, that would improve federal coordination of efforts to assist state and local officials, and respond to citizen concerns about disease clusters in their communities. These groups also want to see legislation to reform TSCA enacted to help stop these clusters from forming in the first place through exposure to unregulated and untested chemicals.
“The documented disease clusters may just be the tip of the iceberg, and they illustrate the need for the federal government to work with state and local governments, and those living close to these clusters, to figure out what is making people sick,” Solomon said. “In addition to helping communities already facing a disease cluster, the country’s overall chemical policies need to be changed to prevent the creation of additional disease clusters: requiring chemical manufacturers to ensure the safety of their products and reducing or eliminating toxic releases into air, water, soil and food through stronger environmental controls and tough enforcement of those requirements.”
The full issue paper can be found at www.nrdc.org/health/diseaseclusters