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Oil, Chemical, And Pharmaceutical Polluters Dodge Scrutiny In Alleged Cancer Cluster Investigation

Did DEP Sample Indoor and Ambient Air Quality?

From the beginning, we were highly skeptical of the “cancer cluster” findings of the person we dubbed the “Facebook epidemiologist”, who not only misled people on epidemiological issues, but advanced an implausible causal mechanism (the radioactive rock), see:

We reached out multiple times via email to warn NJ Spotlight reporter Jon Hurdle not to rely on this “information” and instead cultivate qualified sources, like real epidemiologists and scientists. We told Hurdle to report DEP regulatory data and hold DEP accountable to CDC/ATSDR analytical frameworks, see:

So, we were not surprised by today’s news reports that State officials found that there is no cancer cluster, based on epidemiological data: (NJ Spotlight)

Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that 98 to 105 students who attended the school between 1968 and 2021 could statistically be expected to get brain cancer — similar to the number that was published on the social media list.

However, we continue to question claims or inferences that there is “no evidence” of any known cancer risks, including brain and central nervous system cancers.

There is plenty of evidence of ongoing exposure to multiple known and suspected chemical carcinogens.

We also question the assumption that radiation is the “most likely” or sole potential environmental risk factor, and we reject the claim that DEP is exercising an “abundance of caution”: (NJ Spotlight)

Since radiation is the most likely environmental factor linked with primary brain tumors, DEP also — out of an “abundance of caution” — investigated possible nearby sources including naturally occurring radioactive deposits, historic land use, and hazardous site contamination records within a one-mile radius of the high school.

Note that the “nearby sources” that DEP investigated do not include air quality – indoor or ambient outdoor air or nearby sources of chemical air pollutants.

It is not exercising an “abundance of caution” for DEP to ignore these pollution sources and environmental cancer risk factors.

Note also how Mr. Hurdle’s reporting actually  masks chemical (versus radiological) pollutants as “environmental factors”. He completely fails to mention chemicals and instead relies on “hazardous site contamination”. This allows DEP to ignore the cancer risks of chemicals in the air.

To avoid exactly this kind of gaslighting, we published DEP’s own data on ambient air quality, specifically for “hazardous air pollutants” and their estimated and mapped cancer risks, see:

That DEP data could easily have been supplemented by the data on nearby sources of chemical air releases in the DEP’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) database

DEP explains what the TRI data are:

NJDEP operates a Right-to-Know program for collection of chemical inventory, environmental release, and materials accounting data from certain manufacturing sectors in the state. This includes reporting of releases and transfers of toxic chemicals to the environment, which are contained in a USEPA database known as the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). TRI is a source of information about releases of more than 650 toxic chemicals from manufacturing and some non-manufacturing facilities throughout the United States. TRI data from affected New Jersey facilities using, manufacturing, treating or releasing any of the listed toxic chemicals are submitted to NJDEP and USEPA on an annual basis. Although the TRI database represents only a subset of total toxic emissions, the information can be used to identify trends in the release of air toxics.

The DEP hazardous air pollutant and TRI data and cancer risk mapping do not include risks from hundreds of chemicals known to be present in outdoor air.

Therefore, to highlight these risks from unregulated air pollutant chemicals, we also published the NJ Department of Health’s findings that the childhood cancer cluster in Toms River NJ was associated with an unregulated air pollutant NJ DoH found was associated with the Toms River cancer cluster: (see NJ DoH Report)

“The study found that prenatal exposure to two environmental factors in the past were associated with increased risk of leukemia in female children. These exposures were: 1) access to drinking water from the Parkway well field after the time that the well field was most likely to be contaminated, and 2) air pollutant emissions from the Ciba-Geigy chemical manufacturing plant.”

Sadly, the Rutgers scientist Spotlight relies on is playing right along with this misleading DEP game that allows industrial air polluters and DEP air pollution regulators to dodge scrutiny.

Note how Dr. Laumbach narrowly frames his remarks to cancer risks from radiation, while remaining silent about chemical risks and thereby also misleading people about other chemical cancer risks:

Dr. Rob Laumbach, a professor of environmental health at Rutgers University, said the testing on the basis of available evidence should put to rest public fears about any link between a suspected “cancer cluster” at Colonia and any elevated radiation level.

“They are ruling out that there was undue or unusual ionizing radiation exposure at the school,” Laumbach said.

Laumbach narrows the exposure assessment to not only radiation (and not chemicals), but the location of any exposure to the school, as opposed to exposure to the ambient air throughout the community (or the drinking water).

What happened here is a disgrace to the people of Woodbridge and throughout the State who continue to be exposed (unknowingly) to these chemicals and cancer risks.

NJ Spotlight reporting was a disaster and the worst of all possible worlds.

It grossly exaggerated false risks (from a radioactive rock, which a Spotlight TV report at one point even equated with Hiroshima) based on schlock Facebook “epidemiology”, all while ignoring real risks, real science, real epidemiology & real flaws in DEP environmental regulations.

This kind of “journalism” not only needlessly scares and misinforms the public, it lets corporate polluters and DEP regulators off the hook, allowing the unacceptable status quo to remain unchallenged.

[End Note:

The confusion and bad reporting can be illustrated by considering the headline of the Spotlight story.

Based on the URL, the story was originally titled:


That headline focuses on 4 things: “DEP and DoH”; “no evidence of cancer cluster”; and “fear”.

The published headline of the story was:

No evidence of cancer-causing contamination at Colonia High School, officials say

That headline focuses on 4 different things: “no evidence of cancer causing contamination” at the “High School” according to “officials”.

Several distinct issues are confused and conflated in the headlines and in the text of the story in a way that can only mislead and confuse readers:

1. Who conducted the sampling? Who reviewed the sample results? Who made the claims? Why did this begin as a municipal sampling effort and transition to a DEP and DoH project? What was the basis for DEP and DoH claims?

2. What was sampled? (e.g. air (indoor, outdoor), soil, drinking water, etc)

3. What was the sampling conducted for? (e.g. radon, radiation, chemicals? etc)

4. What were the results? How do those results compare with regulatory standards and/or cancer risk levels?

5. What environmental exposures cause cancer? Which case brain and CNS cancer? Were they all sampled for?

6. No evidence for what? The presence of contamination? The presence of contamination that can cause cancer? The lack of the presence of elevated cancer incidence that could be deemed a “cancer cluster”?

7. Why does NJ have such a high cancer “background” rate? (incidence and death) What are the factors that contribute to that rate? Is it going up or down?

8. What are DEP and DoH doing to reduce cancer risks?

It is highly irresponsible to publish information that causes extreme fears and anxiety in the community, especially in a school, without fully explaining all these complex issues.


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