Officials: No definitive cause in Huntersville eye cancer cluster

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — A months-long investigation by state and county health officials has found no single common link among cases of a rare eye cancer with connections to Huntersville. A dozen patients diagnosed with ocular melanoma met with health investigators but came away frustrated by the information shared with them. “I feel like they wasted their time. They did not fully investigate,” Courtney Benson said. She was diagnosed with eye cancer in 2014 and was hoping to learn whether she’s part of a cancer cluster.


For months she and others have been waiting for the results of a state study into the unusual number of cases of ocular melanoma, which normally strikes only five people in a million. She wasn't alone in her disappointment with the state's findings. "I think they're brushing it under the carpet is what I think," said Joe Wagner, who has lost much of the sight in one of his eyes. Wagner and others have been talking with WSOC-TV since last summer about their concerns. A study of cancer statistics and surveys with a dozen local patients failed to find a common cause, North Carolina's head epidemiologist, Dr. Megan Davies, said. "There was no source that we could identify within Huntersville that would explain all the cases or even a majority of the cases," Davies said. Huntersville is pivotal to the concerns of the patients because all of them have lived or worked near Huntersville's Hopewell High School. Janie Blackstock, whose daughter Summer Heath is in treatment for her eye cancer, said she's frustrated the state's investigation didn't do more to look for possible connections to Hopewell. "We have asked several times, 'Are you going to investigate Hopewell High School?' And we'd never get an answer back," Blackstock said. A group of patients and relatives who spoke after their meeting with the state and county investigators said they made a specific request for more investigations. "We want to see sampling of soil, air, buildings," Kenny Colbert said. "None of that was done." Dr. Marcus Plescia, who heads the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said he and the state will consider taking further steps, but he insists the failure to find a cause of Huntersville's cancer cases isn't necessarily a bad result. "The other side of that is that the fact we didn't come away with a definitive cause is probably reassuring for other people who live in that community," Plescia said.  But Colbert, whose daughter Kenan was one of two young women who died from eye cancer, still wants more done by the state. "This is a big scavenger hunt and there are clues out there," Colbert said. "In my opinion they've done a very poor job of looking for the clues." Local and state health officials said they're compiling a list of questions local patients still have and plan to respond to those concerns over the coming weeks.

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