Public health officials know better than to fret over reports of higher cancer rates in particular geographic locations. Such "cancer clusters" virtually always turn out to be the result of pure chance. But that hasn’t stopped others from whipping up worry over a leukemia cluster in the small town of Fallon, Nev.
Thirteen children have contracted leukemia since 1997 in Fallon, a farming and military community 60 miles east of Reno. Only two cases occurred in the prior 20 years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry investigated and last month held town meetings in Fallon to announce their findings.
Neither agency could identify a cause of the cancer cluster — not an unexpected result.
The CDC previously investigated and reported on 108 cancer clusters between 1961 and 1990. None could be linked with environmental causes. Because cancer clusters are now viewed as chance occurrences, state public health departments view cluster investigations as wild goose chases. They’ve even adopted procedures to avoid wasting precious resources on pointless investigations.
The modus operandi of the Fallon-cluster promoters is to select a "suspected cause," frighten the public, and then repeat after their suspected cause is debunked.
Jet fuel was the first suspect. But no one could determine how the children could have been exposed. Then it was arsenic. But arsenic isn’t associated with leukemia. Tungsten, a metal naturally occurring in Fallon, is the latest alleged culprit.
The fundamental problem again, though, is that tungsten is not, and never has been associated with cancer risk. Workers exposed to high levels of tungsten dust or vapors may experience skin, eye, throat, or nose irritation, but this is a far cry from leukemia.
Driving tungsten hysteria are several dubious characters.
Mark Witten, a freelance researcher at Fallon, claims his work shows tungsten "alters the growth of leukemia cells in a laboratory dish" — whatever that means. Perhaps we’ll be treated to an interpretation if and when Witten’s work is peer-reviewed and published.
Another of the saga’s characters, lawyer-physician Alan Levin, filed suit in May 2002 against fuel companies, the U.S. Navy and the city of Fallon to pay for leukemia screening for the children.
Don’t let Levin’s lawyer-physician credential fool you.
Levin testified for personal injury lawyer Jan Schlictmann in the infamous 1980s Woburn, Mass., case where chemical dumping was alleged — but never proved — to have caused cancer in several children. The bogus controversy was eventually made into the movie, A Civil Action, starring John Travolta as Schlictmann.
Other courts, though, have excluded his "expert" testimony as generally unaccepted by scientists.
Ignoring the fact that there is no scientific basis for linking tungsten with cancer, several researchers are trying to alarm the public by claiming their analysis of tree rings indicates tungsten levels have been rising in Fallon for 20 years.
The tree ring alarm, though, is an unfounded sideshow.
Some scientists have attempted tree ring analysis to estimate historical levels of lead, cadmium and zinc in the environment. But no published studies have evaluated the technique for tungsten. Studies indicate that tree ring distributions of metals vary greatly by type of metal and tree species.
Metals can move laterally between tree rings. Research indicates trees tend to push tungsten toward the outer bark. Higher levels of tungsten in outer rings, therefore, don’t necessarily indicate recent increases in environmental levels of tungsten.
Moreover, the U.S. Geological Survey says Fallon is located at the end of the Carson River, which winds its way through tungsten-laden areas, depositing its tungsten rich water in Fallon — as it has for thousands of years.
The whole situation is barreling out of control, even jumping the border into California.
The Sacramento Bee newspaper funded its own local environmental investigation and claims to have discovered a tungsten-caused leukemia cluster in Sacramento County.
California public health officials, though, say there’s no record of any industry in the Sacramento area that makes tungsten products or discharges the metal. They further deny the cancer rates reported by the Sacramento Bee are above expected levels and have declined to do an environmental investigation.
Childhood leukemia is a tragedy. As is often the case with cancer, its cause or causes are unknown. The good news is that childhood leukemia can be treated and cured in 4 out of 5 children.
This success stands in stark contrast to the cancer cluster blame game.
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).