The Story of the Brevard County Cancer Cluster and How Advocates Overcame Contamination

By Stel Bailey 
Environmental Health Advocate
Published March 11, 2020

When I think of “cancer,” I replay the incredible stories of illness told by hundreds of people affected in my hometown on the east coast of Florida. We live in a postcard-perfect area with frequent space launches and where water surrounds our lifestyles. Every sunset paints a vibrant picture of warm hues in the sky. We awake to white ibis quietly foraging insects, seagulls flying above, roaring waves, and the smell of saltwater in the air. 

Our painting was forever altered in 2018 after discovering that the groundwater at Patrick Air Force Base was found to have astronomical levels, over 4 million parts per trillion, of dangerous PFAS chemicals in the water. A group of cancer patients and survivors came together and did independent water testing funded by themselves. The discoveries only worsened as data was collected and communities continued to research. We found it was in the waterways, in wildlife, and that our county was surrounded by this forever chemical. That began a citizen initiative to embrace science and get civically engaged. We were relearning everything we knew about what we called home and the things we thought were safe. 

A grassroots effort began, and our names were combined onto a self-reported sheet that went from 120 cases to over 800 within a few months. We found that the area had prevalent leukemia, breast, urinary bladder, liver, pancreas, lymphoma cancer, and ALS. Many of these cases were diagnosed at young ages and in long-term residents with generations of their families living on the Florida space coast. Many reported they had no genetic prepositions and even had genetic testing that proved they didn’t have mutating genes. 

I hear stories that should be unheard of happening in Florida communities affected by PFAS and other contamination. Government officials say that a daughter, mother, and childhood best friend fighting cancer simultaneously is “normal.” They say 12 breast cancer cases on one street are a “coincidence.” They say that the same home where different owners are diagnosed with the same disease is “paranoid.” We’re told that several graduates of one high school diagnosed with rare cancers are just “bad luck.” They tell us we should be grateful to be alive but fail to recognize that we are living in a world where exposing people to toxic chemicals is normalized. Those who suffered from corporate negligence have stories that need to be heard.

Imagine being diagnosed at such a young age with long-term effects. Your life is forever altered by chronic pain, problems with memory, scarring after surgery, problems fighting infection, nutritional issues, and more. We are continuously sick and haunted by memories of our diagnosis, knowing we’ll never be the same. I see cancer battles preparing us to become fearless fighters to educate and save future generations. After all, we had to learn to be our best advocates through medical treatments. 

The water quality and environmental issues we face in the entire state of Florida are incomprehensible. We had no idea these dangerous and harmful chemicals were lurking in our waterways. There’s no changing the past, but we can change the present by using the energy of survivorship to advocate for less pollution, more accountability, and stricter rules on toxic chemicals. Our children and future generations deserve better.

Stel Bailey

Stel Bailey, a cancer cluster survivor and environmental health advocate, is a researcher and journalist with more than two decades of multimedia experience, having been published globally.

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