A day after the Florida Department of Health was blasted for ignoring evidence of an ongoing health threat in The Acreage, agency officials said they are combing records to determine whether there are elevated rates of brain cancer among adults in the rural western Palm Beach County community.
Further, a spokesman said, once they get additional information from attorneys who claim recent soil and water tests revealed dangerous levels of radiation, they will review it closely.
“If there’s good data in there we would take it very seriously,” said Tim O’Connor, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County Health Department. “If there’s any concern or anything that could be a concern we wouldn’t sit on it.”
However, he said, until the agency receives more than a two-page summary of the findings unveiled Tuesday by attorneys Jack Scarola and Mara Hatfield, it has no reason to sound an alarm. Extensive tests conducted more than four years ago in the community of 40,000 and continued monitoring have indicated well water that most residents rely on is safe to drink, he said.
The agency, joined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 designated a cancer cluster in The Acreage after finding elevated levels of brain and central nervous system cancers in children. The designation came after three children developed similar cancers in 2005-07 — roughly twice the number expected.
However, in a frustrating scenario that has plagued cancer clusters throughout the nation, investigators never pinpointed a source.
At Tuesday’s news conference, attorneys Scarola and Hatfield claimed industrial heavyweights Pratt & Whitney and Palm Beach Aggregates are to blame — allegations both companies deny.
Further, the attorneys said, the numbers of Acreage residents with brain cancer is far higher than health officials have reported. Using figures compiled by an Acreage woman, they said 63 residents were diagnosed with brain cancer from 1997 to 2010. That is three times higher than the 22 health officials said they would expect to find, they said.
They criticized state officials for failing to monitor cancer rates among adults. But, O’Connor said, there was no need to do so. When the scare surfaced, investigators looked at all cancer diagnoses. Unlike the pediatric cases, there was no pattern among adults.
Health officials will retrace their steps, he said. They will analyze all cases reported to the state. “We’re going to take another look at adults to see if there’s anything different than what we found before,” he said.
Meanwhile, scientists who have spent years trying to solve the cancer cluster mystery voiced skepticism about the recent test results.
If radioactive iridium was detected in the community, as Scarola and Hatfield claim, a Florida Atlantic University professor who lives in The Acreage said he’d be worried. “But my question would still be, ‘where is it coming from?’” said J. William Louda, a senior scientist in FAU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Since the mid-1980s, the operations of Pratt, a jet engine manufacturer, have been closely monitored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection after a series of toxic spills on its 7,000-acre compound off the Beeline Highway. “Coming from Pratt doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said. He added: “I see no smoking gun.”
The unique geology of the area naturally produces radiation. It could be stirred up by Palm Beach Aggregates, a massive rock-mining operation, others said. But, most said, there are easy and cheap ways to eliminate the threat of those toxins.
Louda suggested Acreage residents test their homes for radon, maintain a water softening system and monitor home water filtration systems.
O’Connor said finding a clear link to cancer is difficult. To put it in perspective, he said, studies have shown that one of three people will be diagnosed with cancer sometime in their lifetimes.