#725: More on La Quinta Middle School’s cancer scare (California)
From Jonathan Wilson:
Note: Also see message # 721.
Cancer cluster charge disputed
Experts suggest disease occurrences at school a coincidence
The Desert Sun
May 10, 2007
LA QUINTA – While Desert Sands Unified School District awaits a state report on the cancer cases at La Quinta Middle School, other experts are seeking to debunk claims that a cluster – and danger – exists at the nearly-900 student school.”The take-home message is that it’s not always what it seems,” said Beverly S. Kingsley, epidemiologist at the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Kingsley was speaking in general on cancer clusters and is not working on the La Quinta case.
The CDC is the federal government’s official epidemiological monitor.
Of the suspected cancer cases reported to state health departments for investigation, “less than 10 percent actually even warrant an investigation” from the CDC once all factors are presented.
“And a very small percent of those actually turn out to be a cluster,” said Kingsley, who has researched suspected clusters nationally for four years.
Cancer clusters are excessive incidences of the disease in one area over a period of time.
La Quinta Middle School teachers are convinced one exists in their school, built in 1988. Sixteen teachers have reported 18 diagnoses. Three have died.
A report from Dr. Sam Milham, a part-time Indio resident and physician-epidemiologist, last month fueled the teachers’ argument. He presented evidence – high levels of “dirty power,” or electrical smog – that he said points to a cluster.
Desert Sands Unified School District officials have adamantly denied claims, criticizing Milham’s measurement tools and science as not aligning with the accepted research on electricity and disease.Superintendent Doris Wilson said she hopes for a final report from the California Department of Health Services by the end of May.
Gary Rosenblum, a certified industrial hygienist in Palm Desert, said Milham’s talk about “dirty power” is bogus.
” ‘Dirty power’ is a description of something that doesn’t exist,” said Rosenblum, who has been certified since 1990.
“What they’re talking about is electric and magnetic fields, and those occur whenever electricity runs through a wire or electronic device.”
Those fields are present everywhere – in homes, office buildings and schools, he said.
“All of the things I’ve seen indicate there’s absolutely no risk from electric and magnetic fields that we’re exposed to in everyday life,” Rosenblum said. “You can always say something is possible, but at this point, there’s no evidence.”
Milham, who has worked for state departments of health in Washington and New York for 40 years, disputes that. He pointed to several research papers posted on the National Center for Biotechnology Information Web site that link electric and magnetic fields to cancer.
“It’s nothing new,” said Milham, who resides in Olympia, Wash. “This stuff has been around for 25 years.”
In 1999, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences told Congress of a weak link between electric and magnetic fields and childhood leukemia.
Milham said leukemia and brain tumors top the list of cancers linked to exposure to electric and magnetic fields.
None of the La Quinta Middle teachers have those cancer diagnoses. A report last year by Dr. John Morgan, a cancer epidemiologist with Region 5 of the California Cancer Registry, found excessive cases of melanoma at La Quinta Middle. Other cases reported include breast, uterine, thyroid, colon, pancreatic and ovarian cancer.
But Milham said he sees the discrepancy as an opportunity.
“We’re treading new water here. It’s new. There’s nothing to compare it to,” he said.
Morgan’s not convinced.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s an even viable hypothesis. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, but it’s a far-fetched hypothesis that is not generally supported by scientists,” Morgan said.
Kingsley of the CDC said clusters generally are evident when the same kinds of cancers pop up in one area.
“When there’s lots of different kinds of cancer, it’s probably a coincidence,” Kingsley said.
Milham said that’s what makes La Quinta Middle’s case intriguing.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and it’s the most exciting cluster I’ve looked at. I hope we can figure it out,” he said.
Timeline of events
Late 2003: La Quinta Middle teachers expressed concerns about cancer diagnoses in the school, noting specifically the chemicals in carpets and toxic mold.
January 2004: Teachers say the water and soil could be contaminated; a cancer epidemiologist at the California Cancer Registry begins to investigate claims and finds nothing significant. District content with results.
Early 2005: Teachers raise concerns about the electric and magnetic fields in the classrooms.
May 2006: The California Cancer Registry tells the school board there is no link between electric and magnetic fields and the cancer diagnoses. Independent doctors not hired by the district also present findings that they say show evidence of a cancer cluster.
April 2007: Independent doctors brief community members on their research.
May 2007: The district awaits a final report from the state, expected to arrive before the end of the month.
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