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January 13, 2003

Cancer Cluster Questions Explained

Thomas A. Burke, PhD, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, discussed the confusion surrounding what constitutes a cancer cluster in a January 5, 2003, article in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. According to the article, each year about 1,100 allegations of cancer clusters are reported to health officials across the country and an overwhelming majority of them are false alarms.

In the Times-Dispatch article, Dr. Burke explained that different cancers have different causes and that a good indication of a cluster is a high rate of a specific cancer, of a rare cancer or of a cancer in an age group not normally affected, such as lung cancer in teenagers.

Dr. Burke told the paper, “When people say this guy has lung cancer, this guy has bladder cancer, the woman down the block has breast cancer, this guy has prostate cancer—that’s not a cluster. That’s life.” Cancer is the nation’s number two cause of death, and Americans have about a one in three chance of developing some form of cancer during their lifetime.

In order to identify a cancer cluster, health officials must do an extensive survey of the area and population. The paper reported that none of these studies has proven that a polluter caused a cancer cluster. However, Dr. Burke told the paper that these investigations are important because they provide communities with important information about cancer incidence. In addition, with new tools being developed to understand environmental exposures, clusters may help us to identify and prevent environmental risk factors.

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Brigham or Tim Parsons @ 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu. Photographs of Thomas Burke are available upon request.