March 30, 2011
Researchers are urging Congress to act after studying thirteen states and finding 42 disease clusters.
The report entitled Health Alert: Disease Clusters Spotlight the Need to Protect People from Toxic Chemicals is by researches of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and National Disease Clusters Alliance (NDCA), both nonprofit, public interest organizations. It illustrates that disease clusters are occurring in the U.S. and that state and local governments need help and funding from federal agencies to determine the cause of these diseases affecting groups of citizens.
Researchers focused on only thirteen states, Texas, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas, chosen on the basis of occurrence of known clusters in the state, geographic diversity, or community concerns about a disease cluster in their area. Other states may also have disease clusters.
“All of these disease clusters have been confirmed or are currently undergoing an official investigation, though in most cases the cause of the cluster is unknown,” the report said.
A disease cluster is an occurrence of a certain disease in a group of people, an area or period of time that is higher than the expected number of cases, or the norm. Exposure to environmental toxins such as asbestos or certain chemicals has caused some disease clusters.
One of the most famous disease clusters is in Libby, MT, where a mine supplying 80% of the world’s vermiculite was from an ore source contaminated with asbestos. Asbestos contamination of the town from mining operations was widespread and residents developed asbestos exposure related health conditions such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and pleural disorders. The EPA cleanup of asbestos in Libby, started in 1999, is still in progress.
Another example of a disease cluster is respiratory diseases among rescue, recovery and debris removal workers exposed to toxic dust at the World Trade Center site after 9/11.
Report author Dr. Gina Solomon, MD, MPH, a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and Director of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency Program, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works yesterday about the organizations’ report.
Dr. Solomon highlighted just a few of the 42 disease cluster findings in her testimony:
• Birth defects in Kettleman City, California, including twenty babies born over less than two years with birth defects, and four children born with birth defects so severe that they have since died, in this town of only 1,500 people.
• Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) – a very rare disease – in Herculaneum, Missouri, a town affected by a major lead smelter and decades of pollution.
• Multiple sclerosis (MS) in Wellington, Ohio, where residents are three-times more likely to develop MS than in the rest of the country, a disease whose causes are unknown but are thought to involve a combination of genetic and environmental causes.
• Polycythemia Vera, a rare and severe blood disorder, with four cases occurring on one road in Eastern Pennsylvania.
• Birth defects in Dickson, Tennessee, a striking cluster that was identified by a non-profit organization called Birth Defect Research for Children, created by the mother of a child with birth defects, which gathers information about birth defects nationally, links families, and works with scientists to identify patterns that require investigation.
• Male breast cancer, childhood cancer, and birth defects in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. More than 60 men who lived on that base have been diagnosed with male breast cancer – an extraordinary and alarming finding which is almost impossible to occur by chance alone, and one which deserves urgent attention.
“These people have suffered through illness and uncertainty, hope and disappointment,” said Dr. Solomon. “They have fought for answers, and in most cases, have not received them. It’s not too late for these communities and others like them. There’s still an opportunity to improve and systematize our approach to disease clusters so these communities get the attention they need and maybe also the answers they seek.”
The National Resources Defense Council and National Disease Clusters Alliance want stronger environmental regulation of chemicals, better enforcement of regulations, and laws requiring chemical manufacturers to ensure the safety of their products. They say the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 has failed to protect the environment and health of the public from dangerous chemicals.
“Of the approximately 85,000 chemicals on the market today, an estimated 62,000 were ‘grandfathered’ in without any testing requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA),” Dr. Solomon told the Senate Committee.
In January, Senators Boxer (D-CA) and Crapo (R-ID) introduced S. 76 – Strengthening Protections for Children and Communities from Disease Clusters Act, called “Trevor’s Law,” that will require the EPA to develop and implement a disease cluster response program.