Groups ask federal help on disease clusters

Groups ask federal help on disease clusters

Del. cancer study shows need for fast action, scientist says

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A coalition of environmental and health care groups cited Delaware’s recent cancer-cluster investigations Monday among dozens of cases nationwide that they say prove a need for more federal help in solving local disease mysteries.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Clusters Alliance included Delaware among 13 states that they said have clusters of cancers, birth defects or other illnesses that need more study.

State Senate Environment and Public Works Committee members are scheduled to hear testimony on the issue today.

“Communities all around the country struggle with unexplained epidemics of cancers, birth defects, and neurological diseases,” Gina Solomon, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist who is expected to testify before the committee, said in a written statement. “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.”

The NRDC and other groups plan to study all 50 states for disease clusters, and are supporting legislation to both expand the federal government’s role in investigations and overhaul federal regulation of toxic substances, in order to reduce public exposure to harmful chemicals.

Delaware’s Division of Public Health is continuing to study its own findings, over a series of years, that a number of neighborhoods in Delaware have cancer rates exceeding state and national levels by margins that experts consider significant. Some of the diseases found at higher-than-expected rates have known environmental links, although no cause has been identified in the Delaware cases.

Standout concerns included laryngeal cancer cases in Northeast Wilmington next to the Brandywine between Northeast Boulevard and Market Street, as well as ovarian cancer rates in the Hockessin area that were more than four times the state average.

Among the other clusters: thyroid cancers in the Overview Gardens and Minquadale areas southwest of Memorial Drive; leukemia in a suburban and rural tract west of Dover and northwest of Wyoming; and melanoma, kidney and esophageal cancers west of Rehoboth Beach.

The national report released Monday, titled “Health Alert: Disease Clusters Spotlight the Need to Protect People from Toxic Chemicals,” described Delaware’s initial statewide cancer cluster report in 2008 as a “unique” look at concentrations of cancer in areas smaller than the county level.

Division of Public Health researchers have subsequently looked at even smaller areas, without identifying a cause for the high rates.

“Regardless of the cause, disease clusters can devastate communities with anxiety and emotional and financial difficulties,” the national report said of Delaware’s findings, “including high medical costs and lowered property values, as well as the tremendous burden of the disease itself.”

Laura Henderson, environmental campaign representative for Wilmington-based Delawareans for Social and Economic Justice, said the Delaware group supports the findings and is part of a national “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families” coalition seeking to control toxic chemicals.

The Delaware group wants “adequate reduction in the disproportionate burden of toxic chemical exposure to people of color, the low-income population and indigenous communities.”