9 Investigates

Huntersville leaders asking for new steps in possible eye cancer cluster

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Nearly two years after Eyewitness News began investigating an unusually high number of cases of a rare eye cancer in Huntersville, local leaders are asking for new steps to be taken to answer questions about a possible common cause.

Nearly a dozen cases of ocular melanoma, which normally strikes only five people in a million, have been identified. In all those cases, the patients either went to school at Hopewell High School or lived or worked nearby. From the beginning, many concerned citizens, including Janie Blackstock, whose daughter, Summer Heath, is one of the victims, have been asking for testing.

“I would like to see them do a test for the soil and water and environmental, some of the building materials in that school,” Blackstock said.

So far, both state and county health officials have said they see no need for environmental testing at Hopewell.  But now Huntersville town commissioner Rob Kidwell is pushing for an independent third party to test the Hopewell campus for possible environmental links to eye cancer.

“We’ll get a list, tell you who it is and then we’ll speak to them, and we’ll start raising money to get the testing done," Kidwell said. “If there’s something to find, let’s find it. If there’s not, let’s move on to other theories.”

The problem is that in order to do testing at Hopewell, any third party would need to have access to the campus and its buildings and grounds.

So far, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, which controls that access, has said no.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett wonders why CMS wouldn’t allow access in order to ease the minds of residents still worried about what’s causing Huntersville’s eye cancer cases.

"When you constantly say 'no, no, no,' then you begin to question, 'Are you hiding something?' I don't think that's the case, but why won't you let somebody in?" Puckett said. 

CMS declined a request for an on-camera interview but in emails to Puckett, Superintendent Ann Clark explained her decision to deny access for testing by writing "It is my understanding that the state has already reviewed and investigated this concern."

The state health department's investigation involved analyzing data from questionnaires filled out by eye cancer patients.  No one has done onsite testing at Hopewell High.

Deputy DHHS Secretary Randall Williams told Eyewitness News he has no problem with CMS allowing an independent third party on campus to do testing.

“If the school system wants to do it and answer these patients’ concerns, we would not weigh in on that. We certainly wouldn’t stand in the way,” Williams said.

Mecklenburg County’s health director Marcus Plescia feels the same way, saying while he is not recommending environmental testing, “we are not opposed to it being done by a third party.”

As for CMS blocking access for such testing, Plescia told Eyewitness News, “The decision is now up to (CMS) about whether they want to allow testing on their property.”

That leaves Puckett promising to keep pushing against what he calls “stonewalling" by CMS.

“When you have this high a concentration of a really rare eye cancer, it does make people worry,” Puckett said. “You would like to at least eliminate every possibility. I think you absolutely owe people answers.”

Statement from Hopewell High School principal John Gisiano:

Good afternoon Hopewell families. This is Principal Gisiano with a very important message. Tonight, a local news agency is reporting about ocular cancer in the Huntersville area. The safety of all members of our school and community is important to us.

Since 2014, CMS has worked closely with the Mecklenburg County Health Department-Epidemiology staff, the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services - Environmental Epidemiology branch, the North Carolina Central Cancer Registry, and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources as part of a comprehensive analysis of Hopewell High and its surrounding environment within a two mile radius. These state and county regulatory agencies concluded our school is in compliance with the environmental standards required by Mecklenburg County and North Carolina and no further testing of electromagnetic fields is warranted.  

We will continue to rely on the expertise and recommendations of these regulatory agencies for guidance on any additional efforts as needed from CMS. As always, feel free to call me with any questions or concerns. Thank you for your continued support of Hopewell High.

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