One high school, 100 cases of brain cancer: What happened?

One tragic coincidence, and a post on Facebook afterward, led to a mysterious discovery involving a US high school where almost 100 former students have been diagnosed with various types of cancer.

 Scan photos of a tumor; in it you can see cancerous cells that are colored in purple. (photo credit: Nucleai)
Scan photos of a tumor; in it you can see cancerous cells that are colored in purple.
(photo credit: Nucleai)

Nearly 100 people attending a single high school in New Jersey have developed rare forms of brain cancer. The cause hasn’t been discovered yet, but some researchers suspect environmental factors may be the cause.

In a conversation with NJ.com, a local media outlet, environmental scientist Al Lupiano explained that he’s one of 94 graduates or employees of Colonia High School in Woodbridge, New Jersey, who have developed brain tumors, cancerous and non-cancerous, including the most aggressive form called glioblastoma, which is almost always fatal.

Lupiano was diagnosed with a brain tumor 20 years ago, and has since recovered. His investigation began when his wife and sister, who both attended the same school, also developed brain tumors. After his sister died, he asked on FB if other former Colonia students or teachers had similar health issues. He was shocked by the response. Within weeks he received the names of almost 100 people who said they had suffered from and/or were now being treated for brain tumors.

Most of these people report that they graduated between 1975 and 2000, although some graduated only as late as 2014. The investigation is still in its early stages, so no one is yet sure why so many people who attended this school developed brain tumors. The town’s mayor has approached the  Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection for New Jersey, and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a public health agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to investigate the situation.

The causes of glioblastoma are largely unknown. Genetics is considered to play a role, but some studies also link it to exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, petroleum, synthetic rubber and vinyl chloride. Lupiano believes that radiation may also be a topic to focus on. "What worries me is that there really is only one environmental connection to primary brain tumors and that’s ionizing radiation. It’s not polluted water. It’s not air. It’s not something in the soil. It’s not something that happened to us because of bad habits," Lupiano told CBS News.

 Dividing cancer cell (credit: INGIMAGE) Dividing cancer cell (credit: INGIMAGE)

It’s not clear why this particular high school, built in the 1960s, seems to have such a direct connection to so many reports of brain tumors. "It was virgin land, a forest. The school was the first thing that was there, so there was probably nothing in the land at that time. The only thing that could have happened, potentially, was a filler brought in during construction. We have no records from 55 years ago," said Woodbridge Mayor John McCormick.