NBC 10 I-Team: National expert says cancer cases can't be ignored

Dr. Tongzhang Zheng, a Brown University expert who studies gene-environment interactions in the risk of various cancers said the state has the resources toinvestigate if a cancer cluster exists.

A national expert in environmental cancer said health investigators should not ignore the possibility that dozens of cases of cancer may be linked to specific schools in North Providence. An NBC 10 I-Team exclusive investigation found North Providence teachers, staff and former students have been diagnosed with cancer.

Dr. Tongzhang Zheng, a Brown University professor, said with 40-plus cancers from a population of people who studied or worked in the same few schools, the state needs to conduct research.

“If there is a cluster we should not let it go,” he said. “It should cause attention.”

And it has. After the NBC 10 I-Team revealed 20 staffers were diagnosed with some form of cancer, a number of former students and spouses of teachers who died from the disease contacted the I-Team to share their concerns. The Rhode Island Department of Health is now at the early stages of an investigation.

“Out of an abundance of caution, given some of the recent media coverage, we are working with the North Providence School Department to get historical information on faculty and staff,” said Joseph Wendelken, a health department spokesperson. “With that information (i.e., those names), we will be able to look at our cancer registry to determine if there was anything abnormal in terms of the cancer rate.”

Former students diagnosed

At least 20 students from two North Providence High School graduating classes were also diagnosed with cancer, the I-Team has learned.

Zheng, who researches gene-environment interactions in the risk of various cancers in the United States and China, said if he were investigating a potential link between the environment and cancer at the North Providence schools, he’d investigate land use before the building was constructed, whether the location was a former waste or superfund site, the building materials used in construction, and, whether the furniture was painted with cancer-causing fire retardants.

“All these exposures have a strong link to specific cancers,” Zheng told the NBC 10 I-Team.

The NBC 10 I-Team uncovered that a number of the teachers were diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancer and a number of the students were also diagnosed with the same two cancers.

Radon is one exposure with a specific link to breast cancer, according to Zheng.

“The reason I mention radon when we have exposure to radon they release alpha beta particles and girls at puberty age are most sensitive to radiation exposure,” he said. “If I compare asbestos and radon, I’d think for these girls I’d be more concerned about radon.”

Difficult to prove

Zheng said clusters are sometimes difficult o prove and it takes having information on a person’s history, medical information from physicians, social culture factors and the environment.

“There are many examples - even with high exposure - you cannot find the association,” he said. “If there is a cluster of disease, it is very hard to prove.”

Still, it doesn’t mean that people should not care about the possibilities of disease clusters or ignore them. “There are many wonderful examples by investigating disease clusters that lead to discovering new clusters of diseases,” he said. “In 1981 people started investigating and that lead to what? HIV, AIDS.”

The health department said it is conducting its analysis. “Roughly 50 percent of people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer at some point in their lives,” Wendelken said. “The goal of this analysis will be to determine if an abnormal amount of cancer with common environmental origins exists.”

Test, before building

Teachers and staffers want the town to test the land and schools in North Providence including McGuire, Whelan and Stephen Olney, especially the land where a new school is slated to be built.

“They should,” Zheng said. “Before we build we at least need to measure the land if there’s a higher level,” he said.

For people involved it’s a tragedy - for their family, for society,” Zheng added. “All have a tremendous burden on them.”

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