MALIBU — As the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District investigates concerns about a potential cancer cluster among staff at Malibu High School, experts say medical research is currently lacking on whether mold and pesticides could lead to thyroid cancer or other ailments such as migraines.

“Currently, there are not good studies of whether pesticides are associated with thyroid cancer,” said Dr. Jerome Hershman, a UCLA physician whose primary focus is on thyroid cancer.

Hershman is in the midst of studying a possible link, but he said it could be years before his research yields conclusive results.

“There are two schools of thought about this: One is that there is a real increase in thyroid cancer due to some unknown cause. My suspicion is due to pesticides,” Hershman explained. “The other possibility is what’s called ‘ascertainment bias,’ a belief that there’s just more attention being paid to thyroid nodules.”

Less than two weeks ago, 21 teachers at the Malibu Middle and High schools expressed concern that the recent cancer diagnoses of three teachers and health problems experienced by others may be related to contaminants on the campus.

The three teachers were diagnosed with thyroid cancer within the last six months and another three have reported thyroid problems.

“The only established cause [of thyroid cancer] is radiation, in which the thyroid is radiated in an X-ray, but that was stopped many years ago,” Hershman said. “There’s been nothing else like that [proven] that results in thyroid cancer.”

While a current leading cause of the ailment has not been pinpointed, thyroid cancer has nearly tripled in the last 30 years, according to Dr. David Goldenberg, director of head and neck surgery at Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute. He spearheaded a study published last week examining causes of the increased incidences.

Goldenberg and his team researched whether the increase was due to better diagnosis methods or more actual cancer. The team compared patients whose thyroid cancer was discovered incidentally, or during other diagnostic studies, with those being examined specifically for thyroid cancer. Because more patients discovered cancer while being specifically tested for it, Goldenberg and his team concluded that better detection is not the sole cause for the increase in incidences.

The group found no association between thyroid cancer and exposure to radiation and radon, and the researchers said they will need to examine further to determine possible lifestyle and environmental factors.


FAQs about thyroids and migraines:


What’s a thyroid?

An endocrine gland about the size of a quarter at the base of the throat that produces hormones to help regulate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and weight.


What’s thyroid cancer?

Cancer that forms in the thyroid gland. In 2013, about 45,000 women and 15,000 men, mostly over the age of 45, will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Thyroid cancer is generally treatable if found early.


How common is thyroid cancer?

Thyroid cancer has nearly tripled in the last 30 years, said Goldenberg.


What causes thyroid cancer?

It is unclear. Goldenberg found no association between thyroid cancer and exposure to radiation and radon. Researchers said they will need to research further to determine possible lifestyle and environmental factors.


Do PCBs cause thyroid cancer?

The Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research and Cancer classify PCBs as a “possible carcinogen.” The EPA has also found that PCBs disrupt the endocrine system and have decreased thyroid levels in rodents that result in developmental deficits, although the agency noted that more research is needed to determine whether PCBs have a similar effect on the human endocrine system.


What’s a migraine?

A migraine is a neurological disease characterized by a severe headache as well as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to sound, light, touch and smell, or numbness.


How common are migraines?

More than 10 percent of the population, including children, suffer from migraines, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. In the U.S., about 18 percent of women, 6 percent of men and 10 percent of school-age children suffer from migraines, and half of sufferers experience their first migraine before the age of 12.


How do migraines affect kids?

Children who suffer migraines are absent from school about twice as often as children who do not. Boys are more likely than girls to suffer migraines before puberty, although girls are more likely to suffer migraines as adolescence approaches.


This article originally appeared in The Malibu Times.

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