PAVE PAWS Radar Station (from WBZ broadcast)

PAVE PAWS Radar Station (from WBZ broadcast)

12/17/2007

Cape Fear-Mongering

by Joe Brownstein

This past Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health released its report on an Air Force radar system and its possible connection to an elevated childhood cancer rate on Cape Cod. The fact that the study found no connection was the expected result, but you wouldn’t know it from the coverage on WBZ-TV Boston, which has followed the story for the past month and a half.

Since November 5, the station has devoted 14 minutes of on-air time to coverage of the issue over four different segments, looking at whether the Air Force’s PAVE PAWS radar station—a missile defense system whose range covers much of the United States—causes Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare childhood bone cancer.

During its stories, WBZ gave the opinions of parents, children with the disease and brief clips from the department of public health—but no outside expert to comment on the phenomenon. It’s highly questionable that in a city with three top schools of public health—at Harvard, Tufts and Boston University—the station couldn’t get any public health scientists on camera to calm the hysteria.

In 1999, Atul Gawande wrote “The Cancer-Cluster Myth” in the New Yorker, which looked at the phenomenon. Gawande cites cases across the country—from McFarland, Calif., to Newton, Mass.—where cancer clusters have been found.  An unusual number of cancer cases show up—maybe a few times the expected number—and people rush to find a cause.  Sometimes it is a likely culprit like nuclear waste, sometimes an electromagnetic field—more the result of a lack of understanding than any actual evidence. In this case, it was the radar station—which has not been linked to cancer in past studies.

While public health officials can often track outbreaks, Gawande explains, cancers are more difficult because their actual causes are unknown. The clusters that tend to be helpful and find a cause have several thousand times the expected rate of cancer. The Cape, according to the report, has seven times the expected number—six cases—scattered throughout.  In other words, while investigations of cancer clusters frequently take place they just as frequently turn up empty. 

There’s a mathematical reason behind random cancer clusters. While it may seem unusual to have a one in a million event take place (and the odds for this cancer are higher than that), the “one” has to happen somewhere. And if it’s happening randomly, it can happen next door as easily as it can happen on the other side of the country. While your odds of winning the lottery are slim, someone typically does, and haven’t you at some point heard a story of someone winning the lottery twice?

This particular cluster may have more merit—it is a higher incidence of a very specific cancer—but that does not excuse the failure to give the story context.

WBZ also made the mistake of using a parent as an “expert.” Bernard Young, a parent of a daughter with Ewing’s sarcoma, is cited as an “engineer.”  With no further explanation, I can only assume he does not have a public health background.  But even if he did, he is not an expert in this case; he is a parent with the same emotions as any other.

“See, there are people who don’t want any word of this to get out. Perhaps they think our children should die quietly,” he said.

A conspiracy theory—and the Air Force played the role of villain beautifully by refusing to speak on camera. Why they would do so is beyond me, as they had evidence in their favor. Their silence did a major disservice to their own image and public perceptions.

Or perhaps they were worried the story would be one sided. And here, they could make a good case.