Learning Module: Investigating Cancer and Clusters

Module Goals

  • Understand how different cancers effect the human body and potential causes for the malignancies.
  • Review the differences in the understanding potential causes and treatments of cancers, now versus the state of the art when the plaintiffs filed their complaint.
  • Student Assignment


Most people react with concern and fear with just the mention of the word cancer. Considering that cancer is the second leading cause of death for Americans in all age groups, accounting for over 20% of categorized causes of death. Statistics compiled by the Center for Disease Control indicate that for children under 14 years of age cancer deaths are second only to accidental deaths (falling, automobile accidents, drowning, etc.).

What is cancer?

As summarized by the American Cancer Society, cancer is a group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can result in death. A difficulty with diagnosing and treating cancer is related to the number and complexity of cancers associated with each part of the human body. Each organ and tissue has multiple potential carcinogens that potentially affect body functions and a persons capabilities, and there is no exact certainty associated with diagnosis and treatment. A description of cancer survival rates, and how they are calculated is provided in this link.

Linking cancer to environmental factors

Cancer's link to a persons environment (note: this link requires the user to register for free access to this New York Times article) has been a research target for decades, with a goal of being able to identify specific sources causing malignant growth's. One of the hurdles for the plaintiffs during the Woburn Toxic Trial in 1986 was directly identifying a link between trichloethylene in drinking water and leukemia. At the time of the trial much of the medical research linking trichloroethylene and childhood leukemia not been completed. Almost 20 years after the trial, the ATSDR report for TCE states that "...trichloroethylene is 'probabaly carcinogenic to humans'.". So, even if the trial was held today providing any conclusive link between trichloroethylene and drinking water and leukemias may still be problematic.

Student Assignment

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