'Statistically significant' cancer levels found in Suffolk County School District: study

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Friday, July 8, 2022
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The number of people of all ages living within the Northport-East Northport School District with cancer is "statistically significant," a study found. Kristin Thorne has the story.

NORTHPORT, Long Island (WABC) -- The number of people of all ages living within the Northport-East Northport School District with cancer is "statistically significant," according to a New York State Department of Health 20-year cancer study recently obtained by Eyewitness News 7 On Your Side Investigates.

The study found "significant excesses in numbers of cases of pancreatic cancer, malignant melanoma of the skin, uterine (corpus) cancer and prostate cancer," but found "significantly fewer than expected numbers of cases of stomach cancer and lung cancer."

The department found that people living within the area of Northport Middle School had particularly elevated levels of cancer, while those living within the East Northport Middle School area did not.

The department initiated the study in 2020 after the community discovered that a concerning number of graduates of the Northport High School Class of 2016 were diagnosed with leukemia.

The department found that seven graduates were diagnosed with leukemia, while they said the number should only be two.

"It is possible that the elevated occurrence of leukemia among 2016 graduates could be related to factors not possible to uncover, including environmental exposures," the study said.

The study noted that the students attended different middle schools within the district.

Former Northport resident Tara Mackey said she is disappointed in the cancer study. Mackey said she is one of four families who moved from Northport to North Carolina three years ago over health concerns within the school district.

Mackey said the nine-page study didn't include available cancer numbers from the community from 2019 and didn't include a chart of cancer cases in people ages 15-24, while it does include a chart for ages 0-14.

A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health said the 2019 numbers weren't available when investigators were working on the study and, even if they had them, the numbers would not cause any significant changes to the data.

The spokesperson said the levels of cancer in people ages 15-24 could not be included in a chart because they were so low that revealing them would jeopardize patient privacy.

Since 2017, Eyewitness News has been reporting on illness concerns at Northport Middle School. In 2020, an investigation found benzene in soil samples from two septic systems located just outside the school building.

Benzene is a potentially dangerous chemical, which according to the Centers for Disease Control can cause headaches, confusion and even cancer if someone is exposed to high levels of the chemical for an extended period of time.

In a letter to parents at the time, Superintendent Robert Banzer said preliminary air testing did not detect benzene or any other harmful airborne chemical inside the building or from the soil samples or at the source of the septic tanks.

However, the school district was forced to close the school temporarily. An environmental consulting firm recommended the school district conduct a variety of cleanup procedures.

Northport resident Denise Schwartz said she found the recent study alarming.

"That indicates that there is a problem and some of the things that I and other concerned community members have been saying are in fact true," she said.

Eyewitness News 7 On Your Side Investigates Reporter Kristin Thorne asked Banzer if he thought any further testing within the district is warranted.

Banzer said the school district did not request the initial study and, thus, would not make any further requests.

"I care deeply about the health and safety of our students and community," he said in a statement. "I am acutely aware of the devastating impact that cancer has on an individual and their family and loved ones and take the results of the study very seriously. At this time, the Department of Health has not directed us (the district) or the community to do anything differently or make any changes based on their findings."

The health department said it does not believe the community should be alarmed by the results of the study.

"Based on our findings, we are not recommending that Northport residents take any special measures when it comes to preventing cancer," the Department wrote.

Mackey and others are still pursuing a class action lawsuit against the district for negligence.

Attorney Lilia Factor, who is representing the families, spoke out the study.

"If your own study tells you that there are statistically significant higher results, you can't say that it's meaningless," she said.

You can read the entire report online.

The Department of Health held a virtual public meeting Thursday night for the Northport community to discuss the study results.

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