Clarendon still seeking cause of cancer cluster

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(Zind) It’s been one year since a group of Clarendon citizens organized to investigate abnormally high rates of leukemia in their community.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, there are still many more questions than answers about the causes of the disease.

(Zind) Wanda Crossman’s 14-year-old daughter Kayla is a cancer survivor. Four years ago Kayla was diagnosed with childhood leukemia. Next month she’ll celebrate the first anniversary of the end of her chemotherapy.

(Crossman) “Her hair has grown back, she’s very, very beautiful, very happy. Very mature. She’s learned a lot.”

(Zind) Kayla is one of three Clarendon children diagnosed with leukemia in a two-year period. There have also been several cases of another blood-related cancer. Clarendon’s leukemia rate over that period was roughly 15 times the national average.

Wanda Crossman is one of the co-founders of Clarendon FIRST – a citizens’ group formed to look into the cancer cluster. Crossman says the group is focusing on the schools, especially the town’s elementary school. A community survey found an apparently high incidence of cancer among people living near the school.

(Crossman) “My biggest concern is my daughter is still attending these schools and my son goes to these schools. I want to know if they’re safe. If the schools aren’t safe, let’s move them, let’s get them out of the school.”

(Zind) Clarendon FIRST has been working with the state to identify potential sources of cancer causing environmental contamination including pesticides, sludge and industrial waste. A recently completed study by an independent consultant concluded that Clarendon’s water is safe, but Crossman says the state has yet to do soil and air quality tests. Her group has been pushing the state to test the air in both the elementary and high schools.

(Crossman) “It’s been a year. We can’t tell them our schools are safe yet. I feel that people are maybe becoming disappointed with us. We don’t have any answers.”

(Zind) State epidemiologist Doctor Cort Lohff agrees that the most pressing concern is making sure there’s no existing cancer threat. Lohff says the state will continue to work with Clarendon FIRST to test for contaminants and answer as many questions as possible. But the big question – what is causing high cancer rates in Clarendon? – may never be answered.

(Lohff) “Many kinds of cluster investigations like this have been conducted around the United States in the last decade or so and the majority of those have been very inconclusive.”

(Zind) Lohff says the fact that cancer is such a common disease, that it has many potential causes and can take a long time to develop will make it difficult to find all the answers for Clarendon residents.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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