Terry on Aug 7th 2011
The Bennington Banner
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The state Department of Public Health plans to update its evaluation of thyroid cancer cases in the four towns that send students to Mount Greylock Regional High School.
DPH decided to update the evaluation after a concerned resident contacted the agency, spokeswoman Julia Hurley said. The Transcript published on article on July 25 that focused on growing concerns in the community that the high school may be the site of a cancer cluster.
“We did reiterate to the resident, however, that the weight of the scientific evidence is that perchlorate is not expected to cause cancer in humans, and that the concern is hypothyroidism at sufficient exposure levels,” Hurley said.
At press time, it could not be determined exactly when DPH will updated its evaluation.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a cancer cluster occurs when “a greater than expected number of cancer cases occurs within a group of people, in a geographic area, or over a period of time.”
Most of the students who attend Mount Greylock live in Williamstown, Lanesborough, Hancock or New Ashford.
Several residents of the regional school district have told the Transcript that they wondered if high levels of the chemical perchlorate — which was first detected in April 2004 in the wells that supplied the school’s drinking water — had anything to do with several Mount Greylock alumni and staff either developing
cancer or having thyroid problems.
The presence of perchlorate — a chemical used in the production of rocket fuel, fireworks, flares and explosives — in drinking water is regulated by the state. Public water supplies are required by the state to have a perchlorate level of no more than two parts per billion.
Since the article was published, four Mount Greylock graduates have contacted the Transcript to say that they have battled thyroid cancer, while a fifth said she has Hashimoto’s Disease. Hashimoto’s Disease is an autoimmune disorder that often results in an underactive thyroid.
One Mount Greylock graduate who had thyroid cancer said two family members also became sick. One also had thyroid cancer, while the other contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. All three are no longer afflicted.
The Transcript has now learned of 12 Mount Greylock alumni and former staff members who have been afflicted with thyroid cancer. Five others have experienced thyroid issues —including Graves’ Disease. Also, one more developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma; one had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; and one developed a rare sarcoma. These 20 individuals were all diagnosed from 1990 to 2011.
Scott Harris of Clarksburg, who graduated from Mount Greylock in 1979, is preparing for his fourth surgery. His thyroid cancer has returned three times since he was first diagnosed in 1990.
“I’m done with it,” Harris said. “I don’t want it anymore.” Harris, who lived in Boston from 1981 to 2004, said his family has no history of thyroid cancer or thyroid problems. He said doctors really don’t know what originally caused the cancer to develop and then return twice.
He said the water situation at Mount Greylock has been a problem for many years. “They need to get some public water up there,” Harris said. “It’s a high school for crying out loud.”
Built in 1960 on the site of a former airport and farm, the school initially relied on two wells for its water supply. Both wells were first tested for perchlorate on April 15, 2004 after the state Department of Environmental Protection issued emergency regulations that required the testing to take place.
Well No. 2 — located south of the school — registered 1.03 parts perchlorate per billion, just over the state’s then advisory limit of 1 part per billion. But the level of perchlorate in Well No. 1 registered five times higher than the state limit at 5.05 parts per billion. Well No. 1 is located north of the school.
Over the next year, both wells continued to produce high levels of perchlorate, which forced the school to use bottled water for drinking and cooking until September 2006 when a new well was commissioned.
The new well, located about a quarter of a mile to the west of the school, was sought after efforts to have the town extend a water line further down Cold Spring Road failed. State DEP spokeswoman Catherine Skiba said perchlorate has not been detected in Well No. 3.
“The two wells with the initial perchlorate detection have been severed from the water system, but remain available for use in the event of an emergency with MassDEP approval,” she said.
While the source of the perchlorate contamination wasn’t definitively identified, it was suspected that fireworks were the source, she said. According to a report by the state DEP that examined both the occurrence and sources of perchlorate in Massachusetts, fireworks were launched on the high school’s football field between 1989 and 1992, and from 1999 to 2003.
Regional School Committee Chairman Robert Ericson said the school acted appropriately when it stopped using the first two wells after perchlorate contamination was discovered in 2004.
Still, he said, many issues were never resolved. They include where the contamination came from, how long people were exposed to it and how much perchlorate was in the water before the problem was discovered. “It is of concern, and the concern is for the kids who attended the school before the problem was fixed,” he said.
He said the School Committee plans to discuss what the regional district can do now to address the issue.
Jennifer Cushman, a 1996 graduate of Mount Greylock who lives near Rochester, N.Y., was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 31 in 2009. She had her thyroid gland removed and is currently cancer free. “If this is related to the school, it would be nice if something could be done,” she said.
Suzanne Condon, the director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health, said one of the challenges her agency faces when it tries to determine the existence of a cancer cluster occurs when many afflicted people have moved out of the area where the problem may exist. For example, Cushman said her cancer would not be listed in the Massachusetts registry because she was diagnosed while living in New York.
“In Massachusetts, we have a population-based registry,” Condon said. “We know where people live when they are diagnosed, but we don’t know if that is where they’re living at that point in time and have lived in a different place or state. We don’t have the ability to track people diagnosed with cancer,” she said
Cancer clusters are also difficult to determine because they generally involve only a small number of people, Condon said. There are also more than 100 forms of cancer.
“According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, one in every three women are diagnosed with cancer, and for men, it’s one in every two,” Condon said. “When I started doing this work a few decades ago, we used to say it was one in every four people. So the data has changed significantly over the years.”
Filed in Massachusetts