Cancer Clusters in East Houston. Now what?

Roughly two years ago, I sat in a meeting in Highlands, Texas organized by Texans Together and the San Jacinto River Coalition. Citizens there were concerned about the Superfund site located at I-10 and the San Jacinto River, which was contaminating their community with dioxin, a hazardous chemical and known human carcinogen. Representatives from the Department of State Health Services were at that meeting. The citizens of Highlands were calling for a study of their community to determine whether pollution was causing elevated levels of cancer.

The meeting was heated, but Department of State Health Services (DSHS) officials were unmoved. Even if they wanted to do the study, they said, they couldn’t. They had no baseline data for the community of Highlands. They had nothing to compare to. It seemed then like DSHS couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything for the people of Highlands.

Since that meeting, something has changed. Late last week DSHS released a study of 17 different cancers in 38 east Houston census tracts. The study found “statistically significant results” for several cancers, meaning that the number of cases of a cancer for a given area were above the expected amount. In particular, the study found elevated levels of three childhood cancers: glioma (brain cancer), melanoma (skin cancer), and retinoblastoma (eye cancer). The study did not attempt to determine a cause for these cancers.

So what happens next? More study. Specifically, the Department of State Health Services has pledged to take the following action:

“DSHS will consult with a group of subject matter experts to review statistically significant cancers identified in this assessment (especially the rare childhood cancers with large SIR estimates) and evaluate whether follow-up epidemiologic study is recommended and feasible.”

An epidemiological study is one that attempts to determine the cause of a disease. In other words, this study resulted in a decision to investigate whether another study is warranted. That may not seem like much. In fact, this decision by DSHS is apparently no small step. According to the Houston Chronicle, DSHS has conducted 260 similar investigations of cancer clusters since 2004. Of those, about one in four has found higher than expected levels of cancer. But the state has never recommended a follow-up epidemiological study.

In other words, there have been 65 other cases of elevated cancers in Texas that did not warrant further investigation. This is the first.

Does that mean Highlands is the most hazardous place in Texas to live? Do you have to complain to DSHS for two years to get results? The DSHS did acknowledge that citizen concerns prompted the study. But why now? What can other communities learn from Highlands?

One thing is sure: an organized citizen effort in that community prompted the state to action. Organizers in Texas often feel like their concerns fall on deaf ears, but here is a clear example to the contrary. If enough of you complain (or perhaps we should say: if enough of you have cancer) the state will eventually listen.

All of this probably doesn’t mean much for the citizens of Highlands. They would tell you that they know what is causing their cancers: the extremely potent carcinogens that have been seeping into their land and water for decades. They have waited years for even this small step. It will certainly be years more before the state takes action–if it does so at all–to remove the cause and protect their health.

As Jackie Young, our friend and the founder of the San Jacinto River Coalition told the Houston Chronicle in response to the study, “We knew it was going to be bad, but holy cow.”