Alan Farago: Demand answers on thyroid cancer clusters affecting South Florida children

The thyroid gland is the small butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck just below the Adam’s apple. It produces thyroid hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism.

Thyroid cancer has captured the interest of epidemiologists because of its strong association to environmental factors. According to statistics, there is a lot more thyroid cancer in South Florida than there should be.

“The main environmental risk factor for thyroid cancer reported in the literature is exposure of the thyroid gland to radiation.” That’s according to a 2014 statistical paper by Raid Amin and James J. Burns published in a medical journal, BioMed Research International.

In South Florida, FPL’s controversial Turkey Point facility is the major radiation generator in South Florida.

In the early 2000s, the Tooth Fairy Project established that children’s exposure to radiation was significantly higher in Miami-Dade compared to the rest of the state and compared to other states.

In March, 2001, the Radiation Public Health Project (RPHP) released a Special Report on the Florida Baby Teeth Study, entitled Environmental Radiation from Nuclear Reactors and Increasing Children’s Cancer in Southeastern Florida, (the “Florida Report”) which noted that:

“The Turkey Point 3 and 4 nuclear reactors located approximately 25 miles south of Miami have been operating since 1972 and 1973, respectively. From 1972 to 1993, Turkey Point reported the emission of 6.69 trillion picocuries of radioactive chemicals (including Sr-90) into the air, nearly half of the total released during the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. The highest average Sr-90 concentration in five U.S. states has been documented in 86 baby teeth from persons born after 1979 in Miami-Dade County. For persons born in Miami-Dade during the period 1988-94, the average Sr-90 level in baby teeth was 21.5 percent greater than the average for the seven previous years.”

In 2003, RPHP followed up: “Childhood Cancer in South Florida Study Finds Cause in Nuclear Plant Radiation Emissions – Drinking Water Most Likely Source”:

“Miami, Florida – A South Florida Baby Teeth and Cancer Case Study, that was officially released recently, finds that infants and children are especially vulnerable to cancer caused by federally-permitted radiation releases from nuclear reactors, such as the Turkey Point and St. Lucie nuclear power plants, located in southeast Florida.

“The five-year baby teeth study, also known as the “Tooth Fairy Project,” found a 37 percent rise in the average levels of radioactive Strontium-90 (Sr-90) in southeast Florida baby teeth from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. When compared with baby teeth collected from 18 Florida counties, the highest levels of Sr-90 were found in the six southeast Florida counties closest to the Turkey Point and St. Lucie nuclear reactors: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River.

“The current rise of radiation levels in baby teeth in Florida and in the U.S. as a whole reverses a long-term downward trend in Sr-90 levels since the 1960s, after President Kennedy banned aboveground testing of nuclear weapons 1963, due to concerns about increasing childhood cancer and leukemia rates from fallout.

“Radioactive Sr-90 is a known carcinogen, which is only produced by fission reactions in nuclear weapons or reactors. It enters the body along with chemically similar calcium, and is stored in bone and teeth, where it can be measured years later using well-established laboratory techniques.

“Significantly, the study documented that the average levels of Sr-90 found in the teeth of children diagnosed with cancer were nearly twice as high as those found in the teeth of children without cancer.”

The 2014 report, “Clusters of Adolescent and Young Adult Thyroid Cancer in Florida Counties,” analyzed data provided by a public registry of cancers, the Florida Cancer Data System. For the purposes of the analysis, the years 2000-2008 were matched to thyroid in young adults from ages 15-39.

Unlike the RPHP report, where Florida Power and Light strongly disputed the study, its methodology and its results, there are no similar questions associated with data.

A total of 3,526 young adult cases of thyroid cancer were identified in Florida with an incidence rate of 7.3 average annual cases per 100,000. The report concludes that in South Florida, “there is a statistically significant 26 percent increased risk of young adult thyroid cancer. The probability that the identified South Florida cluster is random is very small.”

The study concludes, “we found evidence of spatial clustering of thyroid cancer cases for AYA (adolescents and young adults) age range in South Florida and Northwest Florida. This evidence may indicate environmental risk factors influencing these results, predisposing adolescents and young adults in these cluster regions to increased risk of thyroid cancer. Further study is needed to investigate the possible factors contributing to the elevated levels of AYA thyroid cancer rates found.”

Statisticians don’t deal with medicine or cause and effect. Oncologists provide information to the Florida Cancer Database System. Doctors on the front lines, treating patients, ordinarily don’t deal with cause and effect.

Ultimately the Florida Department of Health is responsible to link cancer with causes, but the Department is impenetrable as the Kremlin with its default response, “Cancer clusters are difficult to prove,” then a retreat behind its walls.

This is exactly what happened in 2012, when a group of Northwest Miami-Dade residents bitterly complained to Commissioner Jean Monestine that there was too much cancer in their midst.

In Sept. 2012, Commissioner Monestine proposed a resolution, adopted by the board of Miami Dade County Commissioners:


“Commissioner Moss stated that Ms. Renita Holmes brought up environmental concerns. He said he had seen Dr. Rivera from the Health Department earlier and an issue about cancer clusters may be raised later in the meeting. Commissioner Jordan stated she was the only commissioner who pulled this item, and she had released it so that it could pass, because Dr. Rivera had another engagement. She said the item passed and she had discussed it with Dr. Rivera privately. “Commissioner Moss commented that he had forwarded a request to the Health Department to look at a cancer cluster in his district as well.

“Commissioner Jordan noted for the record that the Health department had started doing assessments to verify if a cancer cluster existed. Commissioner Moss inquired whether the assessments would involve looking at current residents as well as residents that grew up there, moved to other areas, and had experienced the harms of cancer. Commissioner Jordan stated that Dr. Rivera explained that the Health Department would interview people from the community and ask others to come forward, in order to identify anyone that may have been impacted, and investigate any other issues. She said the process could take months or years depending on the level of impact.”

By late October, Miami New Times reported the county and state investigation was over: “When asked whether the health department would look further into the cancer issue, Rivera emphatically stated that the investigation was over. “I think this is it for us,” she says. “This is where it stops. We have all we need.” That’s not good enough for (community neighbor) Shelton, who says that she and the Broadmoor residents want more answers.” Justice will prevail,” she says. “Whatever has been done will come forth.”

Justice might not prevail, but presumably when it comes to cancer, the facts and data will.

Citizens have a right and a responsibility to their children to press elected officials: how much money is the state of Florida investing to determine why cancer rates are abnormally high in South Florida? And what about Miami-Dade County?

Even before the issue of money – often cited as a cause for failure of government agencies to act – citizens have a right to know exactly what zip codes and areas of Miami-Dade County are showing statistical deviations in cancer rates. This data is available. There is no good reason for county and state health department officials to obscure the facts. As for the media, it cannot escape anyone’s attention that the children of journalists and news reporters can get cancer, too. No one is exempt. So, is the media silent on cluster cancers in South Florida? Pick up the phone and start asking questions. Don’t take “no” for an answer.

Alan Farago writes the daily blog, Eye On Miami, under the pen name, Gimleteye. He is president of Friends of the Everglades, a grass roots conservation organization based in Miami, FL. A long-time writer and advocate for Florida’s environment, his work is archived at Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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