The study was launched in early 2020 after a state...

The study was launched in early 2020 after a state Health Department review found that a higher rate of leukemia among the Northport High School graduating Class of 2016 was “statistically significant.”  Credit: Morgan Campbell

A long-awaited state study on cancer cases in the Northport-East Northport school district released Thursday found there was a higher frequency of some cancers than expected, but it was not unusual for a population and geographic area that large over a two-decade span.

Researchers said they did not find any links to environmental factors that could have caused the cancer occurrences.

The study was launched in early 2020 after a state Health Department review found that a higher rate of leukemia among the Northport High School graduating Class of 2016 was “statistically significant.” 

It also showed that other than the 2016 graduates, there were no significantly elevated diagnoses of leukemia among young adults and children in the district.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A report from the state Department of Health found some higher incidents of cancer among people who live in the Northport-East Northport school district over a two decade period but said it is not unusual. 
  • The study identified 4,593 cases of cancer among district residents — higher than the 4,454 that would be expected, researchers said — with elevated levels of people with melanoma and pancreatic cancer. 
  • The higher rate of leukemia among the Northport High School graduating Class of 2016 could be related to factors “not possible to uncover” such as environmental exposures or it could be due to chance, the report said. 

The study focused on cancer diagnoses from 1999 to 2018 included in the New York State Cancer Registry.

Because there had been concerns about conditions at Northport Middle School going back to 2017, including odors from chemicals used to maintain the building and grounds, the study included the areas around that school as well as East Northport Middle School. 

The report found a 7% higher-than-expected level of cancers in the area served by Northport Middle School, while the level of cancers in the area that serves East Northport Middle School was slightly less than what would be expected.

“We did a comprehensive look at cancer trends in the school district,” said Aura Weinstein, director of the state Health Department’s Cancer Surveillance Program and lead author of the study. “We did find some cancers that were high, we found some that were low. When we do look at a large community over a long period of time, that’s not all that unusual.”

The study also found higher levels of certain cancers in the district as a whole. Specifically in the Northport Middle School area, there was an elevated level of malignant melanoma of the skin, and prostate cancer, as well as esophageal and pancreatic cancer in the area served by East Northport Middle School.

"Looking at what’s high and what’s low in the entire school district and in each middle school district, these cancers — pancreatic cancer, malignant melanoma, uterine, prostate, esophageal cancer — have few known risk factors in common,” Weinstein said. “Esophageal cancer has some associations with workplace exposures to some solvents, but other than that, none of these cancers has been conclusively linked to exposure to any environmental contaminants.”

In a letter to the school community, Robert Banzer, superintendent of the Northport-East Northport school district, said state officials are expected to come to the area for an informational town hall meeting to answer questions about the investigation.

"Based on the NYSDOH investigation, they do not believe that there is any cause for alarm and they are not recommending that Northport residents take any special measures when it comes to preventing cancer," Banzer wrote. "Residents should continue to follow advice about appropriate screenings, avoiding tobacco use, protecting themselves from the sun and other measures to reduce the risk of cancer."

One member of the 2016 graduating class, Danielle DeSimone, told Newsday in 2020 that she reached out to the state Health Department to request an investigation of cancer cases in the Northport and East Northport area. DeSimone said she was diagnosed and treated for leukemia in 2018 and knew of three other classmates diagnosed with leukemia and one diagnosed with bone cancer. 

Citing patient privacy, researchers would not say how many members of the 500-plus student graduating Class of 2016 had leukemia — only that it was fewer than six cases, that the cases were different leukemia subtypes, and the teens had attended different middle schools. 

Researchers said the elevated occurrence of leukemia among those graduates could be related "to factors not possible to uncover, including environmental exposures." They also said it's possible the higher numbers were due to chance.

In the report, researchers note that cancer is a common disease and that about 40% of Americans will develop it at some point in their lives.

The study observed 23 different types of cancer in people of all ages across the school district from 1999 to 2018. It identified 4,593 cases of cancer among district residents — higher than the 4,454 that would be expected, researchers said.

In that broad group, there were 242 cases of melanoma, higher than the 171 that would be expected. There were also 143 cases of pancreatic cancer, as opposed to the 117 that were statistically expected for the population. The cases of lung cancer, however, were lower, 531 compared with the 603 expected.

Among men, there was a higher incidence of prostate cancer: 708 observed, compared with 649 expected. Among women, there were 167 cases of uterine cancer, above the expected 141.

In the area that serves Northport Middle School, there were 2,655 cases observed, compared with 2,487 expected for the population. There was a higher number of melanoma cases, 153 compared with 96 expected. 

That school was shuttered for several months in 2020 after an environmental firm hired by the district detected elevated levels of benzene in septic tanks and mercury in cesspools. But the firm, which conducted tests including air and soil testing, said there were no significant health risks to students.

Remediation work took place from March 2020 to December 2020, according to the school district website.

For the East Northport Middle School, the report said "the total number of cancer cases was not significantly different from the number expected" — 1,938 observed and 1,968 expected.

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