Satellite Beach: Letter On Ground Water.

The City of Satellite Beach sent out a letter to residents (and apparently some neighboring non-residents) concerning testing of water in the area after health concerns were raised by residents.

The City has had several missteps on this issue including a clear violation of the Sunshine Laws concerning meetings.

We have tried to stay out of this whole thing because there are people out there who are concerned with promoting other agendas including fear rather than taking a reasonable, science based approach to finding out what was going on.

However, we feel the City’s letter is a good one, addressing the science and making reports and conclusions open to the public for inspections.

The money the City and the County spent on testing as well as the letter is, in our opinion, money well spent. Hopefully people will rely on the science rather than speculation and in some cases, unfounded hysteria.

On January 7, 2019, Walter Olson of the brilliant and award winning legal blog wrote a post on coverage of cancer clusters. We could use the information in his post and rearrange it as source material, but it is so well and concisely written that we asked and received permission from Olsen to use the post in its entirety.

Over the years, the New York Times and writers associated with it have done more than most of us to debunk scares over purported cancer clusters. “When multiple cases of cancer occur in a community, especially among children, it is only human to fear a common cause,” wrote George Johnson in a 2015 Times piece. “Most often these cancer clusters turn out to be statistical illusions, the result of what epidemiologists call the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. (Blast the side of a barn with a random spray of buckshot and then draw a circle around one of the clusters: It’s a bull’s-eye.)”

Johnson’s writings in publications other than the Times have cogently analyzed dubious claims of cancer clusters in Toms River, N.J. and Love Canal, N.Y. Times science reporter Gina Kolata was a pioneer in questioning claimed incidence patterns, and a Times editorial helped in dispelling one of the most famous cancer cluster theories, that of breast cancer on Long Island.

Dozens of refuted cancer cluster scares later, are we more cautious when new ones are put forward? Or has nothing changed?

On Jan. 2 the Times published, to predictably sensational reaction, a piece by Hiroko Tabuchi profiling a claimed childhood cancer cluster in Johnson County, Indiana. Local campaigners have collected cases of childhood cancers — diverse kinds of it, not all one type — associated with the county since 2008, which would imply a rate of six cases per year. The piece, unfortunately, omits to mention the county’s population; it’s 139,654. It does concede, somewhat backhandedly, that the county is within a broadly normal range on its numbers, by noting that it has an incidence of childhood cancer slightly above the average for American counties, placing it in the 80th percentile of all such counties, which in this kind of statistical distribution means not really any great outlier at all.

Cluster alarms call for a culprit, and the local campaigners have settled on a now-shuttered industrial plant that used TCE (trichloroethylene), a solvent familiar from dry cleaning and used at many thousands of sites. They suspect it may have spread through the water and subsequent evaporation, which would explain — or would it? — which some sick children lived in homes distant from the plant and why current water testing is at best inconclusive.

I’ve written a fair bit about cluster controversies in the past, including the one in Hinkley, Calif. made famous by Erin Brockovich, and the Woburn, Mass. story captured in the book and movie “A Civil Action.”

Attached to the post, commenter “No Name Guy” gives a way of seeing “shotgun clusters” on your computer:

A fun little experiment one can run in Excel in regards to cancer clusters.

Set up a macro to randomly generate two numbers between 1 and 10. These are X and Y coordinates.

Run this 100 times and plot the frequency of the results in a 10 x 10 grid, where the X coordinate is left / right and the Y coordinate is up / down. So, if the random numbers are 3,9, go over to 3rd column and up to the 9th row and add a tally mark.

I can guarantee you that it will NEVER (ok, perhaps not literally never, but never in the number of times you care to run the experiment) ever turn out as 1 instance in each square. What I can guarantee is that nearly every time, there will be one cell with several hits – well above average.

Do it again with a 21×21 grid and random number generators for 1 to 21. That results in 441 combinations (435 house seats, approximately equally apportioned by population). Run it about 2205 times, or 5 per square. There will be multiple squares with 0 hits…and others with 8, 10, 12 hits…..your so called cancer clusters. Even running it only 882 times, or two per square, you’re likely to have a cell or two with significantly more hits than 2.

These are easy experiments for an individual with a bit of spread sheet skill to run to see what “clusters” are in fact “normal” artifacts of random distribution. Just because there are only 882 cases per year nationally, 2 cases of a particular cancer per year for each 748,000 people (the average congressional district), doesn’t mean that one of those districts may have many times that simply as a result of “normal” random distribution.

We don’t think anyone can say at this time with certainty what is happening with the health issues beachside in Brevard County. There are trails, bread crumbs and lots of speculation but in the end, people should be relying on science and unfortunately science takes time.

Keep following the science. It will get people to the answers and then the solutions.

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