The Wilms tumor cancer cluster in St. Clair County, centered in Marine City, has generated a great deal of local press. From those directly affected searching for information to unaffected members of St. Clair County curious to understand what is going on, everyone is looking for answers. Newspaper stories have been written, media reports have been broadcast, and meetings have been held to try to understand the issues. Therefore it is important to examine the role of both the media and the public’s perception of the cluster.
On a national level, the Wilm’s tumor cluster in St. Clair County has gotten little attention. There are several reasons for this. One is that this disease is so rare: it is very uncommon in adults, and although it’s relatively more common childhood cancer, there are still only about 500 cases per year nationally. Additionally, Wilms is highly responsive to treatment with about a 90% survival rate, which might make it seem like less of a “crisis,” and therefore less likely to receive media attention than cancers with lower survival rates. What is uncommon about this situation locally is that there are 5 children with Wilms in the Marine City area, and three more in the nearby locations of China Township, Port Huron, and Richmond (on the border of St. Clair and Macomb counties). This, according to local math professor Scott Anderson, is as unlikely as ” buying the winning Mega Millions ticket two weeks in a row.” Therefore, despite the dearth of national media attention to this disease, it is a topic that is of great local interest and concern to those in Marine City and surrounding parts of St. Clair County. The cluster there is deeply troubling to the community and has sparked a myriad of reactions from concerned interest to a demand for answers.
While lifestyle (smoking, alcohol consumption, etc.) choices are often blamed as the main causes of cancer for adults, the same case is difficult to make for those those diagnosed with Wilms, given that they are young children. Therefore, if “life style” is a factor at all, it would be that of the parents. Given the geographical proximity of the cancer cluster, however, Wilms families and other community members have good reason to suspect environmental factors such as air and water pollution as the most likely cause. Wilms families have encountered some frustrations in their dealings with Health Department personnel and other county officials in their on-going efforts to have these kinds of environmental issues seriously considered, and studied, as possible causes of the high rate of Wilms in their community.
Furthermore, to the extent that St. Clair County is now making efforts to find the cause of the cluster, these efforts have been hampered by lack of funds. The Health Department’s budget has been cut and they cannot even afford to have an epidemiologist on staff. Another result of lack of funding is that the CDC can only advise a study, not conduct one. Therefore, although it has been a couple of years since the Marine City Wilms cases were declared a cluster by the CDC, little progress has occurred toward finding answers. (One exception to this general state of affairs is that researchers from the University of Michigan have included Wilms families and other Marine City residents in a study designed to look for connections between particular contaminants and particular health conditions). This leaves the question of whether or not the cluster is caused by environmental factors as officially open, while for Wilms families the probable link between their children’s cancer and environmental pollution seems obvious — it’s the precise cause(s) they seek to discover.
This discrepancy between the assumptions of officials on the one hand, and those of Wilms families and other community activists on the other, results in a frustrating situation for community members who need scientific data on pollutants in the local air, local water, and the bodies of Wilms family members while being told by officials that the answers do not lie in such data. At the same time, families are being told to look to their own behaviors, such as smoking, use of hair dye, or a sedentary lifestyle.
It has been pointed out throughout this website that St. Clair County is downstream of Chemical Valley and there have been numerous releases and spills into the river that the public has not been informed about. Additionally there has not been any attempt to see the potential links to known carcinogenic chemicals (such as atrazine) used in pesticides and herbicides in the US and this cancer cluster. (It is interesting to note that comments made by an activist at the June 2011 Community Forum on Wilms Tumor [mentioned on St. Clair homepage] concerning pesticide use are not included in the official recording on the St. Clair County health department’s website.) Nor has the fact that Marine City is down stream of the Lambton Generating Station (one of the most heavily polluting coal plants in Canada) been investigated as a possible form of air pollution linked to this cluster.
With all of that in mind it quickly becomes clear why many in the area have strong suspicions that the cluster is caused by pollutants in the environment. While it is possible that there are lifestyle choices that have affected the presence of this cancer cluster, the lack of investigation into these other potential causes is unsettling. This is especially true considering that so many of these factors have been documented to cause cancer in other circumstances — one need look no further upstream than Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang to see the effects of many of the petrochemicals (such as cancers, skewed birth rates, breathing problems, learning disabilities, and a host of other problems) that have spilled into the channel. With that in mind the fact that Marine City draws its water from the very same river should make scientific studies a top priority.
At this time, however, perceptions of the cluster in the media and the general public are still fluid. It could be environmental, or it could just as well be lifestyle. On the other hand, the perception of those affected by the cluster is that it is caused almost entirely by environmental factors, and the lack of action on the part of government to conduct the studies necessary to show such links is a source of deep and ongoing frustration. Indeed, after investigation of much of the material gathered here, it may become harder for the reader’s perception to remain one of neutrality on the issue.