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Environmental connections to public health >>

Senators Push for Action on Disease Clusters Bill

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Two years ago, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) introduced the Strengthening Protections for Children and Communities From Disease Clusters Act, more commonly known as Trevor's Law.  Although the full committee endorsed the bill last year, it never came to a vote in the full Senate.

In a sign that the issue remains a high priority for both senators, they joined forces again last week (Jan. 22) to reintroduce the legislation. The measure seeks to improve coordination among federal agencies in determining whether a disease cluster exists and authorizes them to work with state officials and academic institutions to mitigate exposures linked to suspected clusters. The bill would also increase federal assistance for affected communities.

Environmental and public health leader Erin Brockovich told the committee in March 2011 that people from around the country had contacted her about apparent rises in disease rates in their communities and their suspicions that these increases were tied to toxic chemical exposures. At the time, Brockovich had mapped more than 500 of those contacts. As she told the committee, Americans were turning to her because they weren't getting adequate answers from the government.

The bill is being called Trevor's Law in response to the relentless advocacy of cancer survivor Trevor Schaefer, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2002 at the age of 13. As he was going through month after month of treatment, Trevor learned that there had been four other brain cancer diagnoses the same year in his town of 1,700. Over the decade before and after his diagnosis, there were an abnormally high number of brain cancer cases in the tiny community of McCall, Idaho. When Trevor and his family approached government officials with this information, however, they were told that even if the data were accurate, McCall was too small to be studied as a cancer cluster. 

As testing by EWG has shown all too well, the developing fetus is exposed to hundreds of toxic chemicals while still in the mother's womb. After birth, children are more susceptible than adults to the harmful effects of chemicals because their developing organs and bodies are less able to eliminate toxins.  

As Trevor's experience and the experiences of so many more Americans who have reached out to Erin Brockovich demonstrate, the nation's system for dealing with disease clusters is inadequate. A community shouldn't be considered too small to be studied. Trevor's Law (S. 50) would ensure that government agencies coordinate with each other and with academic experts to investigate disease clusters and provide meaningful assistance to affected communities.

 

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