Cancer cluster: Satellite Beach-area survivors talk strategy

Group asks NASA scientists to crack mystery

INDIAN HARBOUR BEACH, Fla. – After assurances Sunday that Satellite Beach soon will test groundwater for toxic chemicals, cancer survivors from that area urged more people who grew up there and were diagnosed with cancer at a young age to push health officials and politicians to take action, according to News 6 partner Florida Today

[READ: Cancer cluster in Satellite High School graduates]

They also put out a public plea for retired NASA scientists, statisticians or any other researchers who might be able to help crack the mystery of why so many seem to get cancer in neighborhoods near Patrick Air Force Base.

"If any community in the state can figure this out, it's ours," Julie Greenwalt, a Satellite Beach native and radiation oncologist in Jacksonville, told a crowd of about 100 gathered Sunday in a banquet room at Kiwi Tennis Club.

Dr. Julie Clift Greenwalt, oncologist and cancer survivor, is concered over the high rate of cancers in Satellite High alumni. (Photo by Tim Shortt, Florida Today)
Dr. Julie Clift Greenwalt, oncologist and cancer survivor, is concered over the high rate of cancers in Satellite High alumni. (Photo by Tim Shortt, Florida Today)

Many were cancer survivors or friends and family members of survivors. Some donned head scarfs to cover hair loss from radiation and chemotherapy.

Greenwalt recently has raised concerns about a possible cancer cluster in the Satellite Beach and South Patrick Shores area. Greenwalt, who grew up in Suntree but attended Satellite High herself, survived cancer and was diagnosed at age 30, less than a year after her best friend, a fellow Satellite High grad, died of cancer.

At least 20 Satellite High alumni, most of whom graduated within a few years of each other, have gotten various kinds of cancer. Three of them passed away.

Sunday's gathering was to delegate tasks and plan how to move the investigation forward.

State and federal health officials say they're taking the concerns in Brevard very seriously, with all the usual caveats about the difficulties in proving cancer clusters or that their causes are beyond random chance.

The cancer survivors have pointed to a litany of suspected possible causes, including drinking water, sprinkler water, local radar at Patrick and elsewhere, and hidden hazards from drums of unknown waste in yet discovered locations. Or it could be some combination of those factors, they say.

Some expressed skepticism regarding a late 1980s investigation of South Patrick Shores cancer and other health concerns by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In its 1992 report of the investigation, the agency concluded, "The soil and the groundwater sampling in the area did not indicate significant contamination" and based on the available data the agency considered the site to be of "no apparent public health hazard."

The concerns rekindled in May, after residents in Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach posted on Facebook a recent Military Times story about cancer fears surrounding firefighting foams that contain fluorinated chemicals. Patrick Air Force Base had used the chemicals for decades, which some of the cancer survivors fear may now be lurking underground in water tables or in the Indian River Lagoon, where they played and fished as children. But new science makes it unclear if the base or some other yet-to-be-found factors are at play. 

The fire foam chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are unregulated. But science is finding that even at extremely low exposures, the compounds are implicated in some types of cancer, thyroid defects, immune suppression and pregnancy complications, according to a scientific panel that examined the chemicals from 2005 to 2013 and recent scientific studies.

Like petroleum and dry-cleaning solvent plumes, the compounds can migrate long distances in sandy soils like those on the beach. They have turned up in groundwater at Patrick Air Force Base in 2014 and 2017 at thousands of times the federal government's current lifetime health advisory level for drinking water — one sample more than 61,000 times.

But beachside communities have been on either the city of Melbourne's or Cocoa's water system since the late 1950s. So the pathway of any potential exposures remains unclear.

Greenwalt remembers playing on the soccer team at Satellite High, running through the sprinklers. The school uses onsite groundwater for watering the fields.

"We would drink the sprinkler water," Greenwalt said.

Tests of Melbourne's and Cocoa's water systems for the fluorinated chemicals in 2013 and 2014 detected none of the compounds, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection data.