Clarendon residents research possible cancer cluster

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(Host) A group of Clarendon residents wants to discover whether there’s a health risk in their community. The group calls itself Clarendon FIRST – for Families Interested in Researching Sickness Together. The group says there’s an unusually high incidence of cancer among townspeople.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, the group has asked residents to fill out a questionnaire to find some answers:

(Keck) Wanda Crossman helped found Clarendon FIRST for a simple reason. Kids she knew and loved kept getting sick.

(Crossman) “My daughter was diagnosed October 12, 2000. Six months later, her classmate who also lived down the road from us was diagnosed with the same leukemia. And then it was eight months later, another child was diagnosed with leukemia, which is my daughter’s friend also. And when the fourth child was diagnosed, it was just too much.”

(Jackie Fenner) “Wanda and I got together and just said, ‘This is strange – this isn’t normal.’ And we asked ourselves, ‘What is normal?'”

(Keck) Jackie Fenner, cofounder of Clarendon FIRST, says a small group of parents started doing research to find answers. They came across some startling statistics.

For example, on average, out of 100,000 children age 10 to 14, fewer than two will get acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common leukemia among children. But at Mill River Union High School, which has 700 students, Fenner says there were three cases of leukemia in the last two years. She says several recent graduates also have the disease. And she says another student was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer that affects the lymph nodes.

And it isn’t just kids who are sick. Fenner points to a road just north of her home and says many people on the street have told her they have Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

(Fenner) “And there’s another road that’s over that way and this gentlemen said ‘Well, I’m going to fill out a questionnaire and I’m going to pick up one for every neighbor because I’m the only one on my street who doesn’t have cancer.’ And he said, ‘I have had three dogs and two have died from cancer and I’m waiting for a biopsy on my third.'”

(Keck) Bill Bress, a toxicologist for the state Health Department, says he gets a lot of calls from people who are concerned about cancer rates in their community. But he says cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer rates are probably much higher than people think.

(Bress) “The odds of two or three people on the same block having cancer are probably no more than coincidence because it’s probably to be expected.”

(Keck) Communities should take action, he says, when there is a large number of people with the same type of cancer or a large number of people with a unusual form of the disease.

In 1997, Rutland Town residents grew concerned when five long time educators at their elementary school were diagnosed with different forms of cancer. The state tested soil, air and water in and around the school, and found no ties between the school and the occupants’ health. Jackie Fenner of Clarendon FIRST admits they may not find any conclusive answers either.

(Fenner) “Clarendon may not be out of the norm. We may just be how the world is today. We don’t know. But we won’t know unless we look, unless we find, unless we ask the questions that we’re asking.”

(Keck) The group has had two town meetings to discuss their concerns and the local select board has thrown in their support. The group will make a presentation to their state representatives at a third town meeting later this summer.

In the meantime, Fenner says they’ve gotten help from the Toxic Action Center, a nonprofit group based in Massachusetts. Fenner says they’re using a health questionnaire provided by that group to get more data from Clarendon residents. Select board member Nancy Buffum says most people in the town support what Clarendon FIRST is doing, though some have expressed concern over the confidentiality of the questionnaires. Jackie Fenner says only trained staff from the Toxic Action Center will see the forms, which will then be destroyed.

(Fenner) “And their experts are compiling the data and putting it on a map for us. So we can see if there’s any pattern of illness. Then if there is a pattern, we can see well, what environmental factors could surround the pattern – whether it be industry or pesticide use. It could be a number of things.”

(Keck) Three hundred questionnaires have been turned in so far. Fenner says to even begin to uncover the cause of the illnesses, they’ll need at least 1,400 more.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Clarendon.

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