WASHINGTON — An environmental group will tell a Senate panel Tuesday that it has identified 42 suspected clusters of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses in 13 states.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, working with the National Disease Clusters Alliance, wants to step up the federal response to investigating suspected clusters. The 42 clusters — either confirmed or under active investigation — are in Texas, California, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas. The groups plan to look at all 50 states.
A specific source of chemical contamination — asbestos — was identified in only one of the 42 clusters, in Libby, Mont. But the group notes that in many communities, such as Camp Lejeune, N.C., "the case grows stronger that documented exposure to toxics has harmed the health of community residents."
The NRDC will testify Tuesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, along with environmental activist Erin Brockovich and Trevor Schaefer, a 21-year old survivor of brain cancer from Boise, Idaho. He and his family have created Trevor's Trek Foundation to fight childhood cancer.
Committee chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo — the top Republican on the Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health Subcommittee — are co-sponsoring legislation aimed at helping communities determine whether there's a link between elevated levels of illness and contaminants in the environment.
The NRDC, which surveyed the 13 states to determine the scope of complaints, backs the bill and said it hopes the hearing will draw attention to communities like three in Florida: the tiny Tallevast neighborhood in Manatee County, Palm Beach County's Acreage and Collier County's Immokalee, where residents have also reported unusual rates of disease.
"Each of these communities is suffering alone and that doesn't need to be," said Gina Solomon, a medical doctor and senior scientist with the NRDC. "The science could be more powerful if there was a study looking more broadly at disease clusters."
Solomon said the group looked at 13 states in an effort to document the frequency of areas with unusual rates of disease. It found 42 clusters, either confirmed or under active investigation, with diseases ranging from childhood cancer, birth defects and neurological diseases to multiple sclerosis.
"It's a very widespread and diverse problem that needs national attention," Solomon said. "Investigations are happening often at the county or state level without adequate resources on a sporadic basis, but this really requires national level attention."
The NRDC survey says that in Tallevast, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry determined in 2008 that prior long-term use of groundwater for drinking and other household purposes was a public health hazard. From 1962 to 1996, the survey notes, the American Beryllium Co. manufactured machine parts in the community.
The survey also notes that the Florida Department of Health confirmed a pediatric brain cancer cluster in a rural Palm Beach County community, The Acreage. No cause has been identified.
The report also notes that in 2004, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and state health officials in North Carolina and Florida identified three women employed by AgMart who gave birth to children with birth defects during a seven-week period. All six parents worked in the same tomato fields in North Carolina and Florida.
Boxer and Crapo's legislation would give the Environmental Protection Agency a role in investigating clusters, create guidelines for prioritizing and investigating disease clusters and increase assistance to cluster communities.
"Whenever there is an unusual increase in disease within in a community, those families deserve to know that the federal government's top scientists and experts are accessible and available to help, especially when the health and safety of children are at risk," Boxer said in January when she introduced the legislation.
But the bill may face a tough climb in Congress, with resources tight and Republicans showing interest in scaling back the EPA's existing authority. The hearing comes as the Senate this week plans a vote this week to limit the agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Causes of illness clusters can be difficult to pinpoint, given the use of chemicals in everyday life, and critics note that some clusters may be statistical flukes. But environmentalists say the investigations have been spotty, and Solomon said the legislation is aimed at finding answers, not pointing fingers.
"This is about doing the science right, figuring out what's going on and taking action to prevent future health problems," she said, noting that in Tallevast, the water source was identified. "If we listened to people who said it's a statistical fluke, people would still be drinking that water."
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