The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Technology

March 20, 2013

Slate: In Toms River, N.J., Cancer Cluster or Chance?

(Continued)

In the central part of Toms River, there were 14 childhood cancers during those years when between nine and 10 would have been expected. But however closely you analyzed the cases, it was extremely difficult — and maybe impossible — to distinguish the blips in the data from what could have occurred by chance. For the children and their parents these were not blips but tragedies. They naturally wanted an explanation. Something or someone to blame.

Fagin was just finishing "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation" when I met up with him at a journalism conference last spring. At a reception one evening, we came to realize that we both were writing books about cancer that would be published this year. (My book, "The Cancer Chronicles," is scheduled for August.) Later, as we read and commented on each other's drafts, we were struck by how we saw the issue of cancer and the environment in very different ways.

Toms River is a story of determined parents forcing reluctant government officials to persist until they found a plausible source for their children's illnesses. But as I read and reread the book, I couldn't shake the feeling that the bigger story was how human grief can drive the brain to see cause and effect whether or not it's really there. After five years and an investigation that cost more than $10 million, it is not certain that anyone in Toms River got cancer from toxic waste discharged by local companies into the atmosphere. The frustrating thing about the science of cancer is that we will probably never know.

Whether you look on the community or the molecular scale, cancer is largely a matter of chance. Every second, millions of cells in a body are copying their DNA as they prepare to divide. It is an imperfect process, and errors occur at every turn. Some are corrected, some are not, and every once in a while the right combination causes a cell to begin multiplying indefinitely, bringing forth a malignant tumor.

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