DHEC: No evidence of Mt. Pleasant cancer cluster; doctor thinks air, water not to blame


MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCIV) - Recent cases of Mount Pleasant children being diagnosed with a rare, specific form of brain tumor have many in the community worried, but DHEC says there's no evidence of a cancer cluster in the area, and some doctors do not believe the cancers are being caused by environmental issues.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said on Wednesday its data does not support there being a cancer cluster in Mount Pleasant, despite concerns of parents who through their own investigation discovered a number of cases being diagnosed in recent years.

DHEC officials released the following statement on the matter Wednesday:

"DHEC staff’s sympathies are with these individuals and their families who are fighting to overcome this terrible disease. The results of the Community Cancer Assessments (CCA) conducted for children ages (0-19) and the population at large for the Mt. Pleasant area, using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, do not indicate a cancer cluster."

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As for environmental factors possibly causing the tumors, a doctor specializing in brain cancers says that doesn't appear to be the case, based on information available right now.

That’s according to Dr. Ashley Sumrall, a neuro-oncologist at the Levine Cancer Center. She sees patients in both Charlotte and Charleston, and talked with ABC News 4 Wednesday about the risks and complications of brain cancer.

Sumrall says roughly 300 cases of the cancer in question - diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) - are diagnosed every year in the United States. DIPG forms on the brain stem. Because of its rarity and risky location, Sumrall says it’s hard to pinpoint a cause.

“It is dangerous to go in for a biopsy or perform surgery on this part of the brain,” she said.

Doctors have limited information, especially because most people diagnosed with DIPG can’t have surgery without suffering severe complications.

It’s the diagnosis that killed Ethan Richardson in 2013, but his mother Brandy has kept fighting for answers.

“We have too many cancer cases in this area for there not to be something going on,” she said.

Richardson is concerned by several cases of this rare cancer popping up in Mt. Pleasant over the years, but Sumrall said what seems like an increase in cases is likely due to advancement in medicine.

“We’re so much better at detecting cancer than we were even five years ago or 10 years ago,” she said.

She said there is “probably a 0 percent chance” that the cases are due to poor air or water quality.

“A lot of times we'll find these clusters where people have different cancers, and it is nearly impossible to study if something environmental has caused them,” she said.

The only certain environmental cause of DIPG known at this time is ionizing radiation from exposure to nuclear chemicals, according to Sumrall.

“Based on the cases, if I lived in the neighborhood, I wouldn't move and I have three kids,” she added, saying that she encourages parents to be vigilant of any changes in their child’s health and to routinely keep their health records up to date.

The recent trend in brain cancer cases in Charleston County is “stable,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

The data, from 2010-2014, shows a 4 percent decrease in cases over a five-year period.

ABC News 4 has reached out to DHEC for data on all cancer cases in the Tri-County area over the last several years. The agency has not yet provided us with that information.

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