Health Dept. debunks cancer cluster

Ewing's sarcoma instances not ‘statistically significant’

The Pennsylvania Department of Health recently determined there is no “cancer cluster” in Washington County or the Canon-Mcmillan School District. This finding was in response to a report released in late March, claiming there were six cases of Ewing’s sarcoma in the area. The department’s statement was released one day before state officials were supposed to meet to discuss the matter.

“Based on the data we currently have, when compared to incidence rates for the rest of the Pennsylvania population, male and female incidence rates for the Ewing’s Family of Tumors and childhood cancers in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District were not consistently and statistically significantly higher than expected in all three time periods analyzed,” the department stated in a Tuesday release.

Dr. Ned Ketyer, pediatrician and consultant for the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer that typically impacts individuals between age 10 and 20, is very rare.

“I think they say there are about 200 cases annually in the United States,” Ketyer said.

For such a rare cancer to pop up so many times in a centralized area, Ketyer said many members of the community and beyond have begun to ponder the specific cause. The curiosity for the cause behind the several cases of Ewing’s sarcoma is what mostly led the Department of Health to launch an investigation.

At the same time, the investigation was able to determine whether or not the uptick in diagnoses qualified as a “cancer cluster.”

“If you can establish a cancer cluster, that triggers a more intensive investigation from the federal government,” Ketyer said.

According to the National Institute of Health, a cancer cluster is defined as “the occurrence of a greater than expected number of cancer cases among a group of people in a defined geographic area over a specific time period.”

The Department of Health’s latest report has stated that the recent occurrences of Ewing’s sarcoma in the Canon-McMillan school district do not technically constitute as a cancer cluster. However, on behalf of the department, the report does acknowledge that the localized rates of Ewing’s sarcoma and other types of cancer were, in fact, elevated.

“When compared to state incidence rates, rates for some types of other radiation-related cancer…were somewhat higher than expected in Washington County or Canon-McMillan School District; however, these cancer incidence rates were not statistically significantly higher in both gender groups or consistently and significantly higher in all three time periods analyzed,” the department stated in a release.

Ketyer said he believes that pinpointing causes isn’t as important as determining certain associations.

“What are the things that increase the risk of cancer? That is how we need to talk about cancer specifically,” Ketyer said.

As a consultant for the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, Ketyer has become familiar with the impacts of pollutants on the environment and how those pollutants could potentially impact certain health issues.  

“Bone cells appear to be very sensitive to radiation,” Ketyer said. “That’s why people are looking at radiation; we know it’s not good for bone health, and they’re looking specifically at radiation waste and a shale gas infrastructure.”

In Canonsburg, there are a variety of potential associations that have been raising eyebrows in the community. For example, the U.S. Dept. of Energy uranium mill tailings disposal site near Canon-McMillan High School, as well as shale gas drilling and fracking operations sit nearby.

While he does acknowledge the potential dangers of these industries on the human body, Ketyer said he doesn’t foresee there being a “smoking gun” that points solely to fracking. Regardless, he is hopeful that the Department of Health’s investigation will lead to more research on the disease itself.

“I think it’s an opportunity for people to come in and learn more from Ewing’s sarcoma,” Ketyer said. “But in order to find that, you have to look and you have to keep an open mind.”

While the Department of Health has released its initial findings, their statement elicits hope for continued monitoring and research in the future.

“DOH will continue to closely monitor [Ewing’s Family of Tumors] and pediatric cancer incidences in Pennsylvania over the next several years as new data becomes available in the [Pennsylvania Cancer Registry],” the department stated in a release.