The Political Landscape of the St. Clair County Cancer Cluster

The politics of the Wilm’s tumor outbreak in St. Clair County

In investigating the political aspects of cancer clusters and other health problems that might be linked to industrial pollution, one gets the impression that the most important information is often what goes unsaid.  That is, it can be very telling to examine what it is that those in positions of power do not say or seem to toss aside.

This will be a large part of the following analysis, because in failing to discuss cancer threats associated with toxins in the air, water and soil, officials (perhaps inadvertantly) deny their existence and negate them as an area of discussion, with the result that the socio-political terrain is shaped accordingly.

The Wilm’s Tumor Forum:

This analysis of the socio-political terrain surrounding the discovery of Wilm’s tumor cases in St. Clair County begins with the Wilm’s Tumor Community Forum held in June of 2011.

Video footage of the forum is available here on the St. Clair County Health Department’s website.

[Warning: you cannot skip around the video, if you try, the video will simply make you start again from the beginning; the family and community comments appear towards the end of the video.]

You can also find the transcribed question and answer part of the forum here and the slideshow used in the health department’s presentation here.  However, there is no transcription of the comments made by the families and general public at the forum—you have to watch the full video for that (again raising the issue of the important role silence plays in shaping how we understand political and social issues).

The Health Department stresses the potentially coincidental nature of the cluster and emphasizes causes other than those associated with industrial pollution in the air, water, and/or soil of the county. One official goes to great lengths to explain to the audience that “environment” can refer to anything that a person comes into contact with outside his or her inherited genes; she then gives as examples hair dye and natural radon in your soil, and explains that “we have to consider all those things, not just the obvious pollution in the soil and the water.” Though reassurance by this official and other panelists might be sincere, they have the effect of denying and delegitimizing the valid concerns and day-to-day experience of community members. This is especially evident when an audience member asks how residents get notified when there’s a spill upriver in Chemical Valley, and a panelist replies that the Ontario Ministry of Environment notifies the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which in turn passes that information along to the public. The audience response was immediate and dramatic — cries of outrage and shouts of “NO!  We do not get notified!”, “I have to learn about it from Canadian radio” and similar such comments.  Clearly, the official system that is supposedly in place bears no relationship to the lived reality of St. Clair County residents.

Another disconnect was revealed during the Forum when the Health Department claimed to have talked to and interviewed the families at the forum; this is, however, contested by the families when one of the mothers states that she has only been contacted to confirm her address. Further investigation for this webpage revealed that the Health Department had, even after the Forum, failed to follow up and do anything beyond phoning to confirm the addresses of families.

Many of the pets in the area are dying of cancer and yet the Health Department and elected officials insist there’s no link.  As in other cases studied and reoccurring in this case itself, this shows a privileging of “scientific” proof — which is for the most part lacking — over common sense. A local mathematician calculated that to have so many cases of Wilms in such a small community is like winning the lottery twice in a row, consecutively, yet the County Health Department refuses to treat it as anything other than coincidence until proven otherwise. The reasoning behind this is part of a larger problem in the legislation of environmental issues that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the U.S. –a shift in the burden of proof from corporations to citizens.

The CDC regulations for clusters are an example of this–in fact, they practically mandate it.  CDC regulation (as cited by Health Department officials in the Q&A section of their webpage on Wilms tumor) asks that “premature environmental measurements should be avoided, since they may be unfocused and uninterpretable.”  This leads to the result — perhaps unintentional — that something must be provable as a cause before testing can occur, and denies families and communities government support when this extremely high standard of proof cannot be met. This requirement can have the effect of neutralizing the CDC, rendering them ineffective. The CDC reports that it is unable to call the Wilms tumor phenomenon in St. Clair County a cancer cluster due to vague wording.

“A cancer cluster is defined as a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.” (this definition of a cancer cluster is from the CDC website, you can find it here).

On the wider political stage:


Marine City and other Michigan cities which draw their drinking water from the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair may, in the near future, lose the meager water monitoring systems currently in place. This real-time water monitoring system, which was put in place in 2006 after considerable pressure and fund-raising by the St. Clair Channel Keepers and allies, is under threat due to budget cuts. To read an article about this featured in The Voice click here.


In the past year, a bill has been introduced on the federal level in an effort to make the CDC more effective in its handling of cancer clusters. The bill, officially called the “Strengthening Protections for Children and Communities from Disease Clusters Act,” but unofficially titled Trevor’s law after a child in Idaho who suffered from environmentally induced cancer, has made its way out of committee but has yet (as of April 2012) to be voted on. The bill may help push the CDC to more action, but so far it remains to be seen if the bill will have any teeth or any funding. Full text of Trevor’s Law (and more) can be found on the website for the Trevor’s Trek Foundation here.

For the full questions and a largely unedited video of the forum please see the St. Clair County website here:

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