State regulators have found no evidence to suggest pollutants are to blame for an elevated number of cases of a rare and deadly brain tumor in Ocean Springs children.
The investigation, however, is continuing.
“We have great sympathy for the families in Ocean Springs and their heartbreaking situations,” Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Robbie Wilbur said in response to a Sun Herald inquiry. “MDEQ is working in coordination with others doing what we can to find potential answers within our area of expertise and our role as a regulator.”
The last DIPG diagnosis came in February for Sophia Myers, prompting her parents and others to question why so many children in a small area would suffer from a cancer so rare it affects only between 300 and 400 children a year nationwide. Sophia Myers lost her battle with DIPG on Oct. 20.
The Sun Herald spent seven months investigating the DIPG cases in Ocean Springs as featured in September in the six-part investigative series, “Diagnosis: Death.”
All three families lived within a 25-mile radius at the time of their child’s diagnosis, and all three attended Ocean Springs schools.
They also played on the same beaches and swam in the same South Mississippi waterways.
There is no known cause or cure for DIPG, though Dr. Mark Kieran, director of pediatric neuro-oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, told the Sun Herald some studies are starting to suggest the original mutation that causes DIPG forms long before the baby is born. What causes the genetic mutation to form, however, is unknown, Kieran said.
MSHD epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers also noted that there are “no known environmental exposures, radiation sources or genetics related to the cause of DIPG.”
Ocean Springs is one of four cities in the heavily industrialized county of Jackson — the only Mississippi county to see a 50 percent increase in childhood cancer cases over a five-year period beginning in 2010, according to a statistical review by the National Cancer Institute.
The Sun Herald reached out to state lawmakers and state regulators to find out what, if any, investigation is under way to determine if Ocean Springs children are more at risk for developing DIPG.
Both MDEQ and the Mississippi State Department of Health, as well as Gov. Phil Bryant’s office and local legislators, confirmed an investigation.
Clay Chandler, Bryant’s spokesman, said both state agencies have found no evidence of any “imminent risk to public health and the environment,” in the city of just 18,000 residents.
But, Chandler said, the governor wants “this monitoring to continue” and has made a commitment to make available “every necessary resource so the public and environmental health and safety are secured.”
That provides little comfort to the families of three Ocean Springs children who have died from DIPG over an eight-year period.
“We appreciate that our state officials are taking this issue seriously,” Sophia Myers’ mother, Angel Myers, said. “However, having just recently acknowledged that they are looking into this, I can’t imagine a scenario where they’ve had enough time to complete an investigation or reach any conclusions.
“My hope is that the incidence of DIPG and other pediatric cancers on the Mississippi Gulf Coast continue to get the attention they need,” she said. “Our kids deserve to have the state invest the necessary time and resources to ensure that they are safe from cancer causing agents in the environment. I understand the difficulty of this task, but we will hold our state officials’ feet to the fire.”
An investigation began after MSHD officials confirmed a doctor’s suspicion that a third case of DIPG in Ocean Springs over an eight-year period was elevated.
As part of the probe, the state agencies reported the three cases to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC and ATSDR spokeswoman Bernadette Burden told the Sun Herald the agencies recorded the information on the three DIPG cases in Ocean Springs, but she said there is no active investigation into a potential cause for the elevated numbers.
The MSDH also planned to reach out to the Alabama State Department of Health and pediatric cancer specialists “to gain insight and additional information based on their expertise,” MSDH spokeswoman Liz Sharlot said.
The Health Department’s investigation has centered around a “literature and statistical review” of information about DIPG, the MSHD said, which says there is no known association between the rare cancer and “environmental contaminants, radiation sources or genetics related to the etiology of DIPG.”
Sharlot also said the health department reviewed the statistics available to them of the reported incidents of DIPG in Mississippi, Jackson County and Ocean Springs and elsewhere in the United States to determine if there was an excess number of DIPG cases in Ocean Springs.
“While an initial review of the data showed the occurrence of the three cases over an eight-year period among the small population in Ocean Springs was higher than what would be expected,” the numbers are still too low for officials to reach any conclusions about a possible cause for the increased numbers, MSHD officials said.
Sharlot pointed out that MSDH knew of “at least 30 cases” of DIPG throughout Mississippi in a similar time frame, but those numbers still reflected the number of cases expected in the state based on an annual incident rate of 300 to 400 cases a year nationwide.
Angel Myers questions what was actually investigated.
“No one knows what causes DIPG,” she said. “To hear the government proclaim that there are no environmental causes for the DIPG cluster here in the Ocean Springs area seems irresponsible. They simply don’t know that.”