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State health agency probing cancer cases in Northport-East Northport district

The state health department said it is focusing

The state health department said it is focusing its review on students who graduated from Northport High School in 2016. Credit: Raychel Brightman

The state Department of Health has launched an investigation into “cancer occurrence” in the Northport-East Northport school district after several students from a recent graduating class were "reported as having been diagnosed" with cancer, officials said.

A health department review found a “statistically significant” higher rate of leukemia among the Northport High School graduating Class of 2016 and will expand its investigation to include different ages and cancers in the community, Deputy Commissioner Brad Hutton said Tuesday.

“We have identified higher incidence of some cancer beyond what would be expected for that one class," Hutton said. "While it’s a small elevation, it warrants us now to expand the investigation. We want to determine whether or not we see patterns of cancer among different ages, and expanded time periods,” as well as different cancers.

The school district said in a statement Tuesday that it will "fully cooperate" with the investigation. The state said its investigation will not focus on identifying the cause of any potential cancer clusters.

One student from the 2016 class, Danielle DeSimone, said she reached out to the health department after she was diagnosed and treated for leukemia in 2018. DeSimone, a 21-year-old college student living in Manhattan, said she knows of three other members of her graduating class diagnosed with leukemia and one with bone cancer.

Hutton could not say the number of leukemia cases because of patient privacy.

DeSimone received a letter from the agency Dec. 20 confirming its Cancer Surveillance Program would conduct an investigation, noting it could take at least 18 months to complete.

“When I got diagnosed, I didn’t think anything of it,” said DeSimone, who is in remission after receiving a bone-marrow transplant. “I think when I heard about the third person after me, I was like, ‘That’s kind of weird,’ and then with the fourth person, I was like, 'Alright, something’s wrong here.’ ”

The health department conducts cancer studies and relies on the state Cancer Registry, a database of cancer diagnoses and treatments tied to addresses. While investigations have found higher rates of cancer in Long Island communities, it has not tied clusters to specific pollution sources. In part, that’s because cancers can take decades to develop, people move, and cancers are caused by a number of factors, including genetics and lifestyle choices such as obesity and smoking, according to state health officials.

Last year, a state study found higher rates of certain cancers in an area that includes Centereach, Farmingville and Selden. That included 11 children diagnosed with leukemia between 2011 and 2015, compared to 3.7 expected. About half of the children with leukemia were diagnosed in 2015, according to the state.

Robert Banzer, the Northport-East Northport schools superintendent, said in a statement Tuesday — addressed to residents — he was informed late last week that the health department "will conduct a more extensive review of cancers, specifically leukemia" and that the review would encompass "the entire geographical region of the school district."

"The district supports this study and will fully cooperate" with the health department, according to the statement.

The Northport-East Northport school district has been at the center of health concerns for several years. At Northport Middle, students and staff repeatedly complained about odors in the school. An online petition seeking the school's closure listed a range of symptoms, including respiratory problems, skin rashes and general malaise that reportedly had affected students and staff. 

Banzer on Saturday announced the district was shuttering the middle school for the rest of the school year after an environmental investigation found potentially dangerous chemical compounds in septic tanks and a cesspool outside the building. Those students will move to other schools within the district starting Thursday.

Banzer noted that the state's investigation "did not have any impact" on the decision to close the middle school.

In the letter to DeSimone, the health department cautioned her the investigation is “not capable” of proving any cause-and-effect relationships to pinpoint the source of the cancer.

“We will review available data to obtain a more complete picture of cancer incidence in this area and how it might differ from what is typically found in communities,” Aura Weinstein, director of the state’s Cancer Surveillance Program, wrote.

Hutton said the state has been working with the community for “two or three years.”

State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Huntington) said the state's study should examine potential sources. “I hope they aggressively look for a source or sources. That’s their obligation,” he said.

The health department also said in its letter to DeSimone that it is “aware of concerns raised by the community over the possibility of health effects related to the Northport Power Station and conditions at Northport Middle School.”

In a statement, National Grid said Tuesday that the power plant it operates complies with permits regulating air emissions and has invested over $80 million in emission reductions and energy efficiencies. It noted that state and federal regulators oversee environmental and health impacts.

"The Department of Health mentions National Grid in a letter to a resident, however, there is no study that has linked this issue to the Northport Power Station," said a statement from Wendy Ladd, spokeswoman for National Grid. "The Department of Health has not formally contacted National Grid with any concerns."

In 2009, state and federal regulators investigated concerns about contaminated soccer fields and groundwater due to activities at the Northport Power Station. The report found that while there were “minor spills of petroleum products and other chemicals” at the plant and complaints about oil and soot from the plant’s four smoke stacks, operations at the plant “are not expected to harm people's health,” according to the report from the state health department done with federal regulators.

DeSimone said her request did not focus on the middle school or the power plant but asked the health department to take a more sweeping look at the community, with an eye on blood cancer and cancers among young children. She attended East Northport Middle, which has not been closed. 

“I wanted to try to be as general as possible with my requests so that they can investigate more of a bigger picture,” she said.

Grace Kelly-McGovern, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said the agency is aware of the investigation and advised any residents with questions to call the New York State Department of Environmental Health Assessment Unit at 518-402-7950. 

DeSimone is studying civil and environmental engineering at Manhattan College in the Bronx.

“Learning about calculating cancer risk … was super interesting to me in both my personal life and now my career,” she said. “So I just figured that it would be really cool to tie them together cause I'm so passionate about it, especially now.”

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