DOH issues report on link between cancer, firefighting foam in Brevard County

Health officials will continue to investigate any new reports of cancer

By Jim Waymer of Florida Today

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - People get bladder cancer, leukemia and a few other types of cancer at higher-than-normal rates in areas just south of Patrick Air Force Base and in the Suntree and Viera area, a new state report says.

The Florida Department of Health's long-awaited report shows some elevated cancer rates in two zip codes. But more investigation is needed to prove what's causing the cancers, health officials said. 

"The Department (of Health) will continue to monitor cancer incidence in the suspected areas of concern," the report concluded. 

DOH report on link between cancer, firefighting foam in Brevard County

In response to years of concerns raised by residents, the health department examined cancer rates in the 32937 — Satellite Beach, Indian Harbour Beach and South Patrick Shores — and 32940 — Suntree, Palm Shores and Viera.

Those were the areas brought to health officials' attention by a Jacksonville doctor and cancer survivor who graduated Satellite High School. They looked at nine cancer types, ones thought to have potential links with chemicals once used in firefighting foams at Patrick Air Force Base and other military installations.

They compared cancer rates in the two zip codes to cancer rates nationwide. The two areas were chosen because of concerns raised about cancers among Satellite High School graduates, many of whom lived in Suntree, Viera and Palm Shores while students at the school. Cancer advocates want a broader investigation that looks at all cancer types.

The report for the beachside zip code 32937 found:
•Between 1995 and 2005, a higher-than-expected number of bladder cancers in females and males. Females had 37 cases of bladder cancer, while one would expect 23 or 24 cancers. Males had 106 cases, while 80 would be expected. 
•Fewer-than-expected cases of liver cancer and thyroid cancers in females between 2006 and 2015.

In the 32940 zip code, health officials found:  
•A higher-than-expected number of leukemia cases. While 28 or 29 leukemia cases would be expected in that time frame, 50 occurred between 1996 and 2005.
•A higher-than-expected number of male bladder cancers (109  found; 72 or 73 expected) between 1995 and 2005.
•Between 2006 to 2015, a statistically significant higher number of non-Hodgkin lymphoma among males — 84 cases (65 or 66 expected); pancreatic  cancers among males — 54 cases (38 or 39 expected) ; pancreatic cancers among females — 49 cancers (33-34 expected); and bladder cancers among females — 50 cancers (28-29 expected).

Health officials cautioned against reading too much into the higher numbers or leaping to conclusions about environmental exposures.

"In some cases, an initial analysis can demonstrate statistical significance in the number of cancer cases occurring, but may not be linked with a statistically significant association with exposure to environmental contaminants," the report states. "Also, a statistically significant excess of cancer cases can occur within a given population without a discernible cause and might be a chance or random occurrence."

Nonetheless, Florida Department of Health officials said they would work with the county and state environmental officials to test the area to determine health risks.

Local cancer fears returned to the forefront last year, when Jacksonville oncologist Julie Clift Greenwalt, a cancer survivor and Satellite High School graduate, raised concerns with state health officials. 

"I think this is an amazing report, I haven't had time to fully digest it yet, but I'm grateful for all their hard work," Greenwalt said Thursday.

The report did, however, fail to consider pediatric cancers, breast and other cancers of concern, she added.

"I think the right thing would be to have others look at this data and digest it, and see if maybe we can fill in some of the gaps," Greenwalt said.

She also noted that the state's assessment did not include the hundreds of cases gathered by local cancer advocates.

Greenwalt's concerns had heightened as she heard of other SHS alumni — at least 20 —  all young, predominantly female, having been diagnosed with cancer within a few years of each other. She recovered. At least three, including Greenwalt's close friend, have passed.

Sandra Sullivan hopes investigators dig deeper.

She said she's unearthed a lot of airplane parts, electronics and other items from her backyard, which he said used to be a dumping ground for the U.S. Air Force. "I know it’s made me sick," she said. "Every time I dig up something between between eight days and seven weeks I’ll have symptoms."

She said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took tests of the soil in her backyard in March, and they're due back in June.

Florida state representative Tyler Sirois, a Republican representing District 51, said he plans to set up a community meeting where health officials can explain the findings.

"While the report’s executive summary states that current findings do not confirm a cancer cluster in Brevard I know the residents and families, particularly beachside, are deeply concerned," Sirois said via email. "The health and safety of Brevard County residents remains my primary concern. I will use every resource available to me as a member of the legislature to continue to raise awareness and get answers."

State and federal authorities have been looking to determine if the cancers are truly linked — what researchers call a cluster — or just statistical blips that happen every now and then by chance. Epidemiologists warned such investigations are lengthy, expensive and often inconclusive. The cause of many cancers remains unknown and true clusters are rare, they say.

The complex interplay of genes and infectious and chemical agents also obscure cancer's many causes. Relatively small numbers of cases to work with, limited available data on occupational risks, lifestyle and demographic factors complicate cluster investigations.

Greenwalt and others reached to famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who held a community meeting in September in Satellite Beach, to inspire local activists to push government officials to get to the bottom of the health concerns and clean up past environmental contamination.

For decades, small pockets of people have suspected the base's radar facilities or chemicals that got dumped or buried in the ground were making them sick. Builders unearthed airplane parts, vehicle batteries and crushed barrels of petroleum during construction in South Patrick Shores. Now what appears to be the latest outbreak of cancers in the shadow of Patrick's control tower has focused attention again on what role, if any, the base has played.

Early focus was on two specific fluorinated compounds in firefighting foams.

While some of those compounds have been found in local groundwater in the areas with cancer concerns, health officials said there is "no evidence" the compounds in the drinking water in areas surrounding Patrick  Air Force Base.

Recent national attention to those firefighting foams and other military-related contamination has been linked to cancers and other illnesses at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. At that base, people drank, bathed in and cooked with tainted water. Here in Brevard, no one knows if, or how, people might have been exposed, or to what specifically.

Fight for Zero, a local nonprofit that wants all fluorinated chemicals out of the drinking water, said the state’s investigation fell short.

“Even though the evaluation of possible cancer clusters is important it is extremely challenging to identify, especially when the level of data collected is too inadequate to paint a high-resolution picture (broken down by zip code not street level and stops at 2015),” the group said Thursday in a release. “This is the 21st century, we can do better.”

Waymer is environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY.

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663

or jwaymer@floridatoday.com.

Twitter: @jwayenviro

News 6 reporter Erik Sandoval also contributed to this story

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