Residents of The Acreage should stop using their well water for drinking and cooking, take cold showers and refrain from dipping into canals to irrigate their lawns until government officials figure out what is causing radiation to permeate their western Palm Beach County neighborhoods, two attorneys said Tuesday.
While insisting that they weren’t trying to instill panic, attorneys Jack Scarola and Mara Hatfield painted a dire picture of the results of soil and water tests conducted in the rural community where a mysterious pediatric cancer cluster was confirmed more than three years ago.
They blamed government officials for ignoring obvious clues about radiation that they claim caused elevated rates of brain and central nervous system cancers in children. They also blasted officials for not taking a closer look at what they described as burgeoning cancer rates among adults.
“We have developed information that gives rise to a very serious concern about public health issues that are not receiving the appropriate attention from government agencies,” Scarola said.
Rather than closing up shop with a frustrating admission that they had no idea why cancer rates were high, government scientists should have looked at obvious culprits — Pratt & Whitney and Palm Beach Aggregates, the attorneys said. The industrial giants flank the 37-square-mile community. Their operations have produced the contamination that has put the nearly 40,000 Acreage residents at risk, they said.
The claims Tuesday were both alarming and inconclusive. While the lawyers recommended Acreage residents make fundamental lifestyle changes to protect themselves, they acknowledged they have no idea where the radiation is coming from or what will have to be done to make the community safe.
Both Pratt, a jet engine manufacturer, and Palm Beach Aggregates, a rock mining operation, have denied playing any role in the cancer cluster. County health officials insist that scientists spent nearly two years conducting myriad tests that dispute the attorneys’ claims.
Since Scarola and Hatfield last week filed five additional lawsuits against the companies, residents have questioned their motives in reigniting the health scare that caused property values to plummet. Some have suggested the lawyers are little more than ambulance chasers, looking to make a buck at their expense.
Scarola said he understands the visceral reaction to their latest findings. “The desire to shoot the messenger is an emotion we can understand,” he said. “But it was not lawyers who confirmed the existence of a dramatically high increase in brain cancer in The Acreage. It was epidemiologists, researchers and scientists who delivered the bad news.”
While those government researchers focused on chemical toxins, he said his firm spent at least $100,000 investigating if radiation was causing the illnesses. Radioactive compounds are a known cause for brain cancer, said Hatfield.
Tests conducted at 11 homes in June unearthed iridium at 10 of them, she said. Iridium is particularly potent and any exposure is dangerous, she said.
A Florida Atlantic University scientist has disputed the notion that radiation levels are a cause for concern. Senior scientist J. William Louda argued that radiation occurs naturally. “The only entity to sue would be Mother Nature or the deity of your choice,” he wrote in 2010.
However, Hatfield countered that residents have been lulled by talk that radioactive materials are “naturally occurring.” While they might be natural, she said they shouldn’t be turning up in drinking water supplies.
Palm Beach Aggregates’ operation supercharged the so-called naturally occurring compounds and its use of the area’s massive canal network carried it into residents’ wells, she said.
Pratt has admitted in court papers that it uses radioactive materials, she said. Over the years, it has also acknowledged a series of spills on its 7,000 acres off the Beeline Highway. When it was threatened with a designation as a federal Superfund site, firm officials instead entered into an agreement with the state for a cleanup that is ongoing.
Scarola disputed the health department’s contention that cancer in the community has abated. Numbers collected by an Acreage woman show 63 residents were diagnosed with brain cancer from 1997 to 2010. That is three times as many as the 22 the state agency has said it would expect to find, he said. Officials only counted children with brain cancer.
Tim O’Connor, a county health department spokesman, said there was no evidence cancer suffered by adults was similar. His agency, joined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, designated the cluster after finding three children with similar ills from 2005-2007 — twice the number expected. Another four pediatric cancers were reported in 2008 and one in 2009. There’s been none since, he said.
Scarola said state agencies need to resume testing. Radiation levels can vary dramatically. Tests taken four years ago may not accurately reflect levels that exist today or those that existed before the state probe began.
Despite naysayers, he said he wants to help residents. Four of the lawsuits filed last week are to recover money for young people who developed brain tumors. The fifth, which seeks class-action status, is to recover millions for the roughly 10,000 homeowners whose property values were decimated by the designation. “We can and will do everything we can to make sure all members of the class are compensated for the injury that has occurred,” he said.