Environmental groups say disease clusters are on the rise and the government needs to do more about it.
In a report released Monday, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Cluster Alliance highlighted 44 communities in 13 states with higher than ordinary numbers of birth defects, cancer and other illnesses.
They cited eight communities in California [PDF], including Kettleman City, where residents have expressed concern over high levels of birth defects.
"We think this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's not that there are only eight clusters in California. There are probably more."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report saying there was no link between birth defects in Kettleman City and polychlorinated biphenyls that are found in high levels in the city’s dump.
The coalition of environmental groups says the government’s 1976 Toxics Substance Control Act is weak and ineffective, and their report indicates more stringent regulations are needed.
“When a community is struck by abnormally high rates of an illness, people naturally ask questions,” wrote Gina Solomon, one of the report’s authors and a senior researcher at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in her blog. “Unfortunately, often clusters don't get fully investigated; or when they do, often the investigations come up with clues but no clear cause. Although it is difficult to conclusively prove what caused any specific disease cluster, we can gather invaluable clues and hints from these tragic events."
Solomon, along with consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, will testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairs the committee. She introduced legislation that would help communities with suspected disease clusters determine whether environmental contaminants were contributing to illness.
Other California communities cited in the report include Carlsbad, Earlimart, McFarland, Montecito, Oroville, Rosamond, and neighborhoods around Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The report also mentions Hinkley, although it is not identified as a cluster site.
The authors of the report used disease registries, state records, federal records, media reports and scientific studies to find the clusters.
They don’t point to specific causes for any one of the disease clusters they analyzed. However, they do suggest possible contributors.
For instance, in Carlsbad, the report points to work done by the Carlsbad Cancer Connection, which has identified homes built on pesticide-contaminated farmland and a local power plant as the culprits behind higher-than-normal levels of childhood cancer.
Dale Kemery, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said there was little for the organization to comment on concerning the future of the agency's chemical laws.
"That's up to Congress," he said. "EPA can't make that call."