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GOLDEN CHILDREN: Cancer Cluster families, communities still seek answers

Sarah Weber • Nov 14, 2012 at 2:39 PM

While families continue to combat childhood cancer in eastern Sandusky County, answers are still elusive.

The Ohio EPA completed air, water and wildlife testing in the area and discovered no chemical or pollutant that constitutes as a smoking gun.

But a new survey could shed light on the cases.

Last year, the Ohio Department of Health used a specialized computer program to find the statistical area of the childhood cancer cluster -- the area with a higher number of cases than expected.

Instead of highlighting only Clyde and Green Springs, the program surprised researchers by revealing that the cluster actually encompasses a large portion of eastern Sandusky County.

It included 28 cases of childhood cancer since 1996.

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Robert Indian, a lead state health researcher, said the health department is following up on that new information with family surveys.

In 2007, the agency asked 18 cancer-cluster families to take a survey about family health and history. Fourteen responded, but the surveys revealed few links in the cases.

"When we identified the (larger) cluster area, that brought new families and new cases into the study," Indian said.

With a larger survey group, the agency might ferret out similarities in the cases.

And that could lead to a cause.

Even so, as of yet there are no clear links. The children in the cluster range in age from toddlers to young adults. They went to different schools, drank from different water sources and lived in different neighborhoods.

They've been diagnosed with different types of cancer -- brain cancer, leukemia, sarcoma and more.

Three of the young cancer patients -- Alexa Brown, 11, Kole Keller, 6, and Shilah Donnersbach, 20 -- lost their lives to the disease.

The surveys include questions about where the child went to daycare or preschool, what water source the family uses, what kind of jobs the parents work, and if the mother had any complications during pregnancy.

The new version of the survey is updated to ask more questions about the child's environment, Indian said.

The health department will likely have another community meeting in Clyde to release findings from the surveys.

The Ohio EPA has stepped back from the investigation, having completed a year of testing.

EPA spokeswoman Dina Pierce said the agency will do additional testing at the health department's request.

At previous meetings, Indian told worried community members that the agency is essentially searching for a needle in a haystack. Researchers and families may never pinpoint the cause of the heartbreaking rash of childhood cancer.

Part of the problem: Doctors and researchers don't have a firm understanding of the exact causes of childhood cancer.

Some cases have been linked to exposure to environmental toxins, but there are still many unknowns about the triggers of cancer in children.

Warren Brown is the father of Alexa Brown, who succumbed to cancer just one year ago.

Brown hopes researchers discover a local cause to give the community some peace of mind. He doubts, however, a root source will surface.

The Browns have instead put their efforts into generating more funding for cancer research, which would help all children diagnosed with cancer.

In addition to surveying families, the Ohio Department of Health is compiling information from in-home radiation testing gathered from the homes of cancer-cluster families.

Dave Hisey, whose son Tanner, 12, is undergoing treatment for leukemia, said investigators set up detectors in his home to collect data on any radiation in the atmosphere. The family also allowed the Ohio EPA to test fish in their pond for toxins.

The results from the radiation tests will be forthcoming, Indian said.

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