After a Mooresville, North Carolina, teenager was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, her mom realized that the child’s case was not unique to her home town.
So Susan Wind began collecting data, and, using her knowledge of geographic-information software, she plotted out thyroid cancer cases on a map.
What she discovered — an apparent cluster of thyroid cancer cases in young women, unusual for a disease that usually only affects older adults — has put a local energy corporation on the defensive
But proving that there really is a cluster of thyroid cancer cases — and trying to identify a cause — has become bogged down in politics, blame and denial.
Where’s the proof?
The definition of a cluster is a higher-than-expected rate of a certain cancer in a defined geographic area, based on historically recorded cases.
Between 1990 and 2011, the federal government and various state agencies across the United States investigated 567 suspected cancer clusters, which typically were reported by suspicious citizens.
Of these, 72 were cited as “confirmed” in a subsequent Emory University study.
In 2016, the Obama administration’s “Trevor’s Law” required the government to track cancer clusters, raising the issue higher in public awareness.
But in Mooresville, there’s still progress to be made
For Susan Wind — whose daughter has so far recovered from the disease — the lack of conclusive data inspired her to go out and raise $110,000 from her community, which she then gifted to Duke University for a study on local water and soil to try to determine the source of the radiation causing the thyroid cancer epidemic.
It seemed obvious, at first.
Wind and her neighbors all live in proximity to Lake Norman, the largest man-made body of water in the state, created by the Duke Energy corporation, which operates a nuclear-power plant at one end of the lake, and coal-fired power plant at the other.
The latter produces coal ash, a highly toxic substance that is radioactive at levels much higher than found in the natural environment.
The lake is also a PCB hazard, and is further polluted by agricultural runoff carried into the lake by the Catawba River.
Setbacks and doubts
Could coal ash from Duke’s unsealed disposal basins be leaking into the groundwater?
Susan Wind’s allies at Duke University tested the water — and discarded the hypothesis.
But coal ash isn’t just a groundwater threat. It’s also used as ground fill — a common practice in Mooresville.
Studies on this are ongoing — and so far, affixing blame for the cancer cases has not been easy.
First, Wind experienced the ire of affluent neighbors concerned that their land values could fall if a cancer cluster were confirmed.
Then there’s the Duke Energy corporation itself, which is citing the lack of conclusive links between coal ash and cancer.
Yet Duke Energy has also reached an out-of-court settlement with various groups that had been suing over the company’s maintenance of unsealed coal-ash disposal sites.
These sites will be cleaned up over the next few years.
Meanwhile, the mystery of the Moorseville thyroid-cancer cluster persists.