A horrifying cancer cluster story emphasizes the need for more environmental whistleblowers
Mother Jones recently published a harrowing account of a scientific mystery—why did a number of otherwise healthy young women develop a rare eye cancer in the Lake Norman region of North Carolina? Through a detailed and nuanced portrait of the women, their families, and a regional fight for justice and accountability, the story’s author, Arielle Emmett, makes clear that no government regulator, independent body, or other accountable organization has been able to pinpoint why exactly this cancer cluster is occurring.
There’s some reason to think Duke Energy, the massive energy company, may be a potential suspect. Duke Energy “had an unplanned release in 2008 of the hydrogen isotope tritium from its McGuire Nuclear Station near Huntersville, which amounted to 140,000 gallons of tritium-tainted water flowing into Lake Norman.” Tritium is controlled by the EPA as a carcinogen, and although studies are lacking, there’s good reason to think it causes cancer. Duke denies that there was any impact on public health from this release.
And, thus far, scientists and regulators have been unable to show Duke Energy’s liability for these cancer cases, if indeed it is due to their negligence. It’s entirely possible the cancer cluster is caused by a different carcinogenic substance, as—unfortunately—these substances are all too common in our water, air, and soil.
Too many health investigations end in similar stalemates, with an inability to definitively link a chemical leak, oil spill, or equivalent hazard to later health effects, which may not show up for years or may be dispersed throughout a region. What can help? Insiders coming forward with information showing what the companies knew, and when, and what internal tests may have been done. These brave individuals are often necessary to get well-buried truths of corporate misdeeds into the sunlight. Depending on the facts, environmental whistleblowers may be able to receive a reward for their information through various programs including the False Claims Act, wildlife protection laws, or ocean pollution protection rules.
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