Los Angeles County public health official Paul Simon just reported that he was unable to link health problems with a local landfill at the center of a not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) controversy.

Oddly enough, Simon said that the finding doesn’t mean the landfill is safe and that more testing is needed.

Waste from the Los Angeles region has been put in the 1,100-acre Sunshine Canyon Landfill (search) since 1958. Residents living near the landfill have been fighting a proposed expansion since the 1990s.

Expansion opponents first claimed that they wanted to save the trees and preserve the area as parkland. That argument failed. They then escalated the controversy with claims of health effects from the existing landfill.

“Colon cancer in a husband. A neighborhood teen dead of a malignant tumor. Eight cancer cases on a block. Three adult children who grew up within a block of each other now diagnosed with cancer,” is how Los Angeles Daily News (search) reporter Kerry Cavanaugh ominously reported the allegations in an article titled, “Dump a place of dread.”

Not surprisingly, though, the allegations of health effects — a supposed “cancer cluster” (search) — don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board commissioned University of Southern California cancer researchers to compare the disease rates among residents living in the vicinity of the landfill with disease rates of other county residents.

No meaningful differences in rates of death, cancer or low birth weight were detected. Disease rates, in fact, were lower in the area around the landfill as compared to nearby areas and countywide.

This should be a “case-closed” situation. But to Simon, it’s a call for more investigation.

His position is one that only a Kafka-esque bureaucrat would love.

“If we find elevated rates of illness, that doesn’t necessarily prove that those illnesses were caused by the landfill because we don’t have a defined exposure — for example, a specific chemical — and in addition, there are lots of other factors that influence disease rates,” said Simon when he presented his results to the Water Quality Board.

That is absolutely an accurate statement. But then Simon said, “On the flip side, if we don’t find any excess in illness, that doesn’t prove that the landfill is safe.”

This latter statement may be true in an abstract way — proving absolute safety under all possible and future conditions is akin to “proving a negative” and is impossible — but it’s not a very practical position in the real world.

The Sunshine Canyon controversy is not the first time a cancer cluster has been alleged and investigated to no avail.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated and reported on more than one hundred so-called “cancer clusters” between 1961 and 1990. CDC could not link any of the clusters with environmental causes.

Because cancer clusters are usually unexplainable, except that they occur by chance, state public health departments tend to view cluster investigations as wild goose chases. Many have procedures in place to avoid tying up already scarce resources with pointless investigations.

Simon seems to want to buck the trend and spend possibly millions of dollars investigating something that doesn’t seem to have occurred.

“We have lots of examples where, looking at disease rates, there were no aberrant numbers, no elevation [in disease rates]. Nonetheless, environmental testing showed that there were clearly dangerous conditions. Love Canal is probably the classic example…,” Simon offered in defense of his proposed snipe hunt.

But the only thing we have lots of examples of — at least according to the CDC — is that investigating supposed cancer clusters is useless and wasteful.

Furthermore, Simon’s reference to Love Canal (search) was sensationalist and irresponsible.

Not a single scientific study links chemical contamination with illness among Love Canal residents. Love Canal may have been an environmental mess, but contrary to popular lore, there’s no evidence anyone’s health was harmed.

Unlike the situation at Love Canal, there is no evidence that residents near the Sunshine Canyon landfill have been exposed to contamination from the landfill, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Simon may catch less political flak from local media and very vocal landfill opponents by assuring that his investigation will continue. But he’ll only be wasting scarce California taxpayer money in a NIMBY-inspired witch hunt.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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