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A cancer cluster is tough to prove

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Recently, thousands of Marines and their families were
blocked in federal court from pursuing their claim that the
government had given them cancer. The decision, involving
people exposed to contaminated drinking water while
stationed at Camp Lejeune, a base in North Carolina, did
not consider the science.
Long before expert witnesses could be called to testify, a
US Court of Appeals let stand its earlier ruling that the
lawsuit had come too late. It failed to meet the
requirements of a state statute banning claims arising more
than 10 years after the final occurrence of a harmful act.
The genetic mutations that cause cancer can take decades
to manifest themselves, far longer than the North Carolina
statute of repose allowed. But the laws we cobble together
often trump those of science.
And even when legal obstacles can be overcome, a link
between a cancer and environmental pollutants is
exceedingly difficult to establish, whether in a laboratory or
a court of law.
In past investigations, only two residential cancer clusters
in the country have been linked, though only weakly, to
environmental toxins. Camp Lejeune has become the third.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit lived at the base at various
times from the 1950s through 1985, a period when the
drinking water was polluted with dry-cleaning fluid, organic
solvents and benzene — chemicals on the National
Toxicology Program’s list of known and probable
carcinogens.
Even so, epidemiological studies published last year by the
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that
Camp Lejeune’s rate of cancer mortality was lower than
that of the general public — 1,078 cases among the Marines
during a 10-year period, when 1,272 would have been
expected in a population that size.
That would ordinarily seem to rule out a cancer cluster.
Epidemiologists, however, suspected that the numbers
might have been distorted by a “healthy soldier” or “healthy
veteran” effect. The military and their kin may receive better
medical care than most people, making them less likely to
die prematurely from cancer.
To allow for that possibility, cancer deaths at Camp Lejeune
were compared with those at Camp Pendleton in Southern
California, where there was no water contamination. It was
then that hints of a problem appeared….continue reading on PUNCH

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