(NEW YORK) — A new report found a “statistically significant” excess of cancer cases among people of all ages living within a Long Island school district compared to similar areas of the state.
The report, from the New York State Department of Health, looked at cancer cases over 20 years within the Northport-East Northport School District in Suffolk County — about 45 miles from Manhattan.
Researchers say the investigation is still in its early stages and does not mean people living in these areas need to immediately get cancer screenings.
Looking at data from the New York State Cancer Registry, researchers conducted an analysis comparing the number of cancer cases found with the number of cases that would be expected to be found.
Within the entire district, the report identified 4,593 total cancer cases, a 3% excess than the 4,454 cases that would be expected. Specifically, the DOH found “significant excesses in numbers of cases of pancreatic cancer, malignant melanoma of the skin, uterine (corpus) cancer and prostate cancer.”
“Cancer clusters are certainly an area of intrigue because we want to be able to identify if there are certain hotspots for cancer,” Dr. Arif Kamal, chief patient officer of the American Cancer Society, told ABC News.
Kamal said the interesting aspect of this case is that “if you look at the particular cancers that are represented, there’s not a single factor that tied them all together,” indicating a “mixture of explanations.”
When looking specifically at the Northport Middle School District, researchers detected 2,655 total cases of cancer, a 7% excess than the 2,486 cases expected, with “significantly greater than expected numbers of cases of malignant melanoma and prostate cancer.” However, the report found that the East Northport Middle School area did not have a significantly different total number of cancer cases from the number expected.
The department said it initiated the investigation in 2019 after members of the community shared a concerning number of graduates in the Northport High School class of 2016 who had been diagnosed with leukemia. Officials found around five graduates were diagnosed with leukemia, which was “statistically unusual” and much higher than the two cases that would be expected.
The DOH said it does not believe the study should cause alarm and that the higher number of leukemia cases may be “due to chance.”
Kamal said the higher number of leukemia cases is “concerning, but it’s a little early to make conclusions about what it means.”
“Leukemia can be a canary in a coal mine because a lot of environmental exposures can lead to it, but it needs to be followed over time to really understand,” he said. “If after five to 10 years those rates increase, you really should be worried.”
The district has battled concerns about toxic chemicals on school grounds for years and, in September 2020, parents filed a class action lawsuit against the district citing negligence. In the lawsuit, they allege the district “knew or should have known about the presence” of the presence of “contaminants” on its campus including benzene, mold, chlordane, mercury, lead, carbon monoxide and petroleum products.
Tara Mackey, the lead plaintiff, told ABC News her daughter attended Northport Middle School from 2015 to 2018. The lawsuit claims that in 2017, the district notified parents about a chemical spill beneath classrooms in the school’s K-wing.
“My daughter was in seventh grade when they told us about the chemicals they found under the K-wing,” she said. “She was suffering from migraines. Some days it would be so bad she would come home, and she would vomit.”
Mackey said she took her daughter to the pediatrician to be tested, and when the pediatrician called her back, she was shocked by the blood test results.
“My seventh-grade daughter had carbon monoxide levels equal to a two-, three-pack-a-day smoker,” Mackey said.
Mackey’s daughter just graduated high school in North Carolina, and although she currently does not suffer from migraines, she did develop asthma while attending Northport Middle School.
When the district was contacted by ABC News, Syntax Communication Group — which represents the district — replied, “The Northport-East Northport School District does not comment on active litigation and will not be providing comment.”
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