WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s still not known why the town of Wellington, Ohio, had more than three times the number of multiple
sclerosis cases you’d expect.
Was it because of a former foundry in the Lorain County community, or emissions or materials from another factory, or could genetics, diet or something else hold a piece of the puzzle? Researchers have had a hard time pinpointing links between the cases, first reported two decades ago, partly because MS is a complex disease whose causes aren’t fully known, said James Boddy, Lorain County director of environmental health.
Now several U.S. senators are pushing for a federal law that would bring more scientific and environmental enforcement toward solving the riddle when a single disease afflicts an unusually high number of people in a single area. This might make a difference around Clyde, too, another northern Ohio community affected by a high prevalence of a disease — in this case childhood cancer — according to a co-sponsor of the legislation, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Clyde and the surrounding area of Sandusky County have reported 35 cases of childhood cancer, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
“Cancer clusters, like the one in Clyde, have caused enormous suffering and heartbreak in communities across our country,” Brown said. “We need to do more to find out why so many young lives have been affected by cancer in these cluster areas.”
The attempt to change federal law to better understand disease clusters gained the support of a well-known environmental whistleblower, Erin Brockovich, who spoke Tuesday to a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Brockovich, who became a household name after actress Julia Roberts portrayed her in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” said that people in more than 534 communities across the country have come to her looking for help.
“There are simply too many cancers in this country, and not enough answers,” Brockovich said.
Lawmakers from both parties say they, too, want to know what causes these clusters. Yet the legislation, sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, is likely to move slowly. There is no House companion bill.
More importantly, the proposed government solutions show potential for breaking down along liberal-conservative lines.
Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, which issued a report Tuesday on dozens of identified or potential disease clusters nationwide, including five in Ohio, say toxic chemicals are at least partly to blame and must better regulated and tested.
But some Republicans on the environment committee say it could be counterproductive and possibly harmful to companies and communities to draw conclusions based on suspicions when scientific proof is lacking.
One committee witness, former government economist and risk analyst Richard Belzer, said that he is concerned that “well-meaning efforts to identify and respond to bona fide disease clusters caused by environmental factors may unwittingly backfire.”
The bill’s goal is so broad — to protect pregnant women, infants, children and other individuals who have been or could be harmed — that it could inevitably lead to over-regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, Belzer said.
An agency within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, now oversees investigations of disease clusters, in coordination with state and county health departments. That’s as it should be, said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the environment committee, adding in a statement, “and I think we should think twice” before turning over the authority to a regulatory agency “subject as it is to political pressure” and prone “to issue rules and mandates.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council cited five cluster sites in Ohio: Clyde, with a high incidence of childhood cancer; Wellington, with an unusually high rate of MS; Marysville, where eight boys or young men were diagnosed with leukemia between 1992 and 2001; Marion, where a high school on the site of a former Army depot and munitions factory was blamed for leukemia and esophageal cancer, and Middletown, where a number of people were diagnosed with a type of brain cancer since 2004.
Robert Indian, chief of comprehensive cancer control for the Ohio Department of Health, said in a telephone interview that the cause of the Wellington cluster remains unsolved; the Clyde cluster has been studied and conclusions are now under review by authorities including the CDC, and the Marysville cluster is under review by the Union County Health Department.
In Marion, carcinogens were found in an old athletic field and the high school has been moved. As for Middletown, the 42 cancer cases over 11 years were not significantly higher than the norm of 38.3 in the same population, statistically speaking, Indian said.
The Senate bill was only recently introduced and has not had a thorough debate. Asked about his possible support, Ohio’s other senator, Rob Portman, said he has met with constituents from Clyde and is trying to assist the state by getting help from the U.S. Geological Survey. That agency has “expertise in looking at local geological formations and their possible role” in disease clusters, Portman, a Republican, said in a statement.
“I think the federal government has an important role to play in helping coordinate research and share findings from around the country and in supporting state investigations,” he said. “However, states, including Ohio, have traditionally taken the lead in investigating these clusters. We need to be careful that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach from the government that detracts from the state efforts.”