RYE, N.H. —The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services gets an average four or five inquiries a year about possible cancer clusters.
All inquiries are investigated, but they rarely rise to the Centers for Disease Control’s definition.
But just what is a cancer cluster?
“It involves identifying a very specific type of cancer in a specific population, over a specific geography and in a specific time frame,” said Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist.
Government officials are planning to test wells near a Seacoast landfill as the latest step in an ongoing investigation into a pediatric cancer cluster in the area, and efforts are being made to ease concerns of residents.
The cancer cluster identified on the Seacoast started with concerns in Rye in 2014.
The study resulted in the first actual cancer cluster in the state since 2008. The one before that was decades earlier.
The investigation underway now will create a road map for how to proceed in the future.
Seacoast residents listened in March as DHHS explained their study into two forms of childhood cancer – rhabdomyosarcoma, or RMS, and pleuropulmonaryblastoma, or PPB.
Using the state’s cancer registry, they looked at five Seacoast towns going back 10 years, finding a small number of cases, but higher than statistically expected.
Two of Susan Kindstedt’s three children now living with PPB were diagnosed in 2014.
The cancer does have a genetic component, but Kindstedt is among the many mobilized in the community, pushing for further investigation.
“Only 15-20 kids annually in the United States are diagnosed with PPB,” said Kindstedt. “So given the cluster of a similar cancer in this area, I am concerned.”
Her mother, Paula Skelley, of Portsmouth, is now pushing for research into treatment and a cure after her daughter, Lydia Valdez, passed away of RMS in 2013. Lydia was nine years old.
“If the gene is dormant for so many years and suddenly a tumor forms was there an environmental trigger,” said Skelley.
The study didn’t find an environmental trigger, but Chan said that’s usually the case.
DHHS has broadened its investigation.
“We’re not only investigating that further,” said Chan. “We’re also trying to address the concerns people may have about specific exposures. The Coakley landfill is one of them. The Pease Tradeport is another. Both of those are EPA superfund sites.
The Coakley landfill is in the midst of the five towns, and the community insists it and area wells should be tested for PFCs — a contaminant of emerging concern.
State Rep. Tom Sherman is a local dad and doctor who joined other local elected officials, affected parents, concerned community members, the EPA and DES in a DHHS team approach.
“There is absolutely no evidence that makes that linkage,” said Sherman. “But that alone doesn’t make me feel comfortable.”
“I want to know exactly what my exposures are. I live here. My children live here. I’ve raised my children here,” said Sherman.
“And part of that health assessment is in the children who have gotten sick, what has been their exposure? Not just in the air, the water, the land but also in the home,” said Sherman.
Chan said the investigation has been the most extensive in his tenure as state epidemiologist.
“Concerns about cancers and concerns about environmental exposures are going to be increasingly common,” said Chan. “And that’s not something we have a lot of experience with in the Department of Health, but… we are looking at trying to increase our capacity to be able to respond to these types of situations in a much more rapid and uniform response.”