When Taylor Wind was 14, she found a lump behind her ear. Doctors, however, dismissed it as nothing to be concerned about. But as the lump grew bigger, her mom, Susan, wanted a second opinion. Then, with a diagnosis of thyroid cancer, the pair suspected a link to some bizarre goings on in their North Carolina hometown.
Now, the Winds are from Mooresville, North Carolina. It is situated on Lake Norman, around 25 miles northwest of Charlotte, and serves as a commuter area to the state’s largest city. The town was founded on farmland, mostly cotton, in the 18th century. And Mooresville was inaugurated in 1873 by local businessman, John Franklin Moore.
Moore was, in part, responsible for founding Mooresville’s first brick factory. Shortly before his death in 1877, it fell to his wife, Rachel, to oversee the area’s continued development. The town boomed due to its railroad connections and in 1900 founded its first textile mill, an industry which would grow popular in the region.
Although Mooresville today is most famously a hub for NASCAR, its history is still visible in the buildings lining the streets downtown. However, as Susan Wind eventually learned, there are some things in Mooresville the eye can’t see. And after her daughter’s cancer diagnosis, she found something grim lurking in its underbelly.
When Taylor Wind first noticed the lump in the left side of her neck, tucked behind her ear, it was pea-sized. And she and her mom were naturally concerned, since they knew it wasn’t supposed to be there. So they scheduled a doctor’s appointment to have a medical professional take a look.
However, the doctor dismissed the mass as “nothing to worry about.” And they figured it was probably triggered by a change in hormones as Taylor hit adolescence. She was, after all, 14 at the time, and her body was changing. Nevertheless, mother and daughter continued to monitor the lump, despite the doctor’s ambivalence.
But something about her daughter’s lump bothered Susan. And as she kept a close eye on the mass over the following months she noticed it got bigger. Not satisfied with the original doctor’s assessment, she pushed for further testing. Sadly, Susan’s hunch proved to be correct, and it was serious.
“[When Taylor] developed a lump on the side of her neck, they said it was [probably a] swollen gland and I shouldn’t even worry about it,” Susan recalled to news outlet WCNC in November 2019. “Seven weeks later, we got a diagnosis that she had thyroid cancer, and it had spread throughout her whole neck.”
So Taylor was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, two years after first discovering the lump. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, thyroid cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women around the world. Furthermore, papillary is the most prevalent type of thyroid cancer, diagnosed in 75 to 85 percent of cases. However, Taylor’s was unusual.
Yes, because papillary thyroid cancer typically affects women in adulthood, with diagnoses most common between the ages of 20 to 55. However, Taylor was still only 16, and she’d noticed it even earlier at 14. But, as word began to spread about her illness, her mom eventually uncovered an unsettling peculiarity in Mooresville. Indeed, Taylor soon discovered she wasn’t alone.
You see, in the months following Taylor’s diagnosis, Susan appeared to have a lot of questions. For instance, how could it happen to her daughter so young? And, perhaps, why did it happen to her daughter? Now, Susan works as an investigator in cybercrime, so it may have been in her nature to find out more.
As Taylor’s cancer became news around the neighborhood, mother and daughter learned of more cases in Mooresville. And as it turned out, three people had also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer on their street, with two others having benign thyroid tumors. Astonishingly, two victims were among Susan’s friends.
“As soon as we put [Taylor’s] story out there, people started contacting me,” Susan explained to WCNC. “Neighbors on my street came to me, and they were like, ‘We have thyroid cancer.’ Other moms in the area and other neighborhoods were contacting me saying, ‘My daughter got thyroid cancer.’ Kids as young as 13 years old.”
Of course, this all struck Susan as highly unusual. And her investigative instincts kicked in as she made a map tracking where all the cancer victims lived. You see, it seemed like too much to merely be a coincidence. What’s more, it struck Susan as being similar to another story that had unfolded in a neighboring town in recent years.
When she was just 23 years old, Huntersville resident Keenan Colbert was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. It’s a disease that would claim her life just five years later. But it’s not only an incredibly rare form of skin cancer. It’s an illness that doesn’t usually affect someone like Keenan.
“We found out it’s somebody typically like me that gets ocular melanoma,” Keenan’s dad, Kenny, explained to WCNC. “It’s typically a white male and maybe [in] their 50s or 60s.” In fact, this particularly rare type of skin cancer only has a diagnosis rate of around one in every 200,000 people.
“A few months later, there was a young lady by the name of Meredith Legg who was diagnosed with ocular melanoma,” Kenny recalled. “And I just thought this is very freaky that we’ve got two girls that are both in their early 20s that have been diagnosed.” But then more diagnoses followed.
Kenny continued, “Shortly thereafter, we found a couple of other people that lived in the area around Hopewell High School, both were in their early 30s. I said this is very strange. Now we’ve got four females who went to Hopewell High School and who lived within sight of Hopewell High School.”
Indeed, eventually, around 30 people were diagnosed with ocular melanoma in the space of ten years. That’s among a population of roughly 50,000 residents. When you consider that the disease averages at five in a million, the Huntersville statistics start to look astonishingly high. And that statistic wasn’t lost on locals.
“People got mad,” Kenny recalled. “People got scared and people got mad. [They] were saying, ‘This could be my kid. I’ve got a 10-year-old and we don’t know where this is coming from or the cause.’” After a dozen cases, the state funded research with a $100,000 grant. But in two years, that money ran out while the number of diagnoses doubled.
In any case, the funded research involving genetic testing, soil testing and examination of other geographic data. But it was all deemed inconclusive. However, at the same time, four more diagnoses of ocular melanoma emerged, taking the town’s total cases to over 30. Sadly, though, with funds exhausted, further testing couldn’t be carried out.
Aware of the situation in Huntersville, Susan Wind wasn’t going to wait for state grants to research the thyroid cancers in Mooresville. So staggeringly, she raised more than $100,000 herself and employed a team of independent researchers from Duke University. And it wasn’t long before they confirmed her suspicions that something wasn’t right.
“They confirmed we had a thyroid cancer cluster,” Susan told WCNC. According to figures from a four-year period, the researchers found that by 2016 Mooresville had 191 cases of thyroid cancer. That’s triple the usual rate. And, what’s more, a majority of the diagnoses occurred within the same two ZIP codes.
“I want to know why everyone is getting cancer, and what do we all have in common,” Susan told NBC news in January 2020. Indeed, her team of researchers suspect a cancer cluster, which means an unusually high rate of the same type of cancer – thyroid cancer, in Mooresville’s case. However, technically cancer clusters can be tricky to prove to the authorities.
As Huntersville learned, state funding for research into cancer clusters is hard to come by. Indeed, figures from the American Cancer Society estimate state health departments receive around 1,000 reports of presumed cancer clusters each year. Results of studies, too, can be dubious, inconclusive, or just inadequate in meeting a health agency’s criteria.
For instance, between 1990 and 2011, there were thought to have been in excess of 560 cancer clusters in the States. But experts concluded that only around 70 of those were genuine. And, while the public may want any suspicion of cancer clusters looked into, an actual connection between cases linked to an external cause can be difficult to prove.
You see, the general criteria to get a public health probe in the first place must be met. For instance, patients must all have the same type of cancer in a common location such as a workplace or ZIP code, and within a certain timespan. Other anomalies, too, may support the case, such as younger patients diagnosed with a cancer usually found in older people.
Having paid for a service anyway, Mooresville’s high rate of thyroid cancer was to be investigated by the Duke University researchers. And their studies included testing the conditions in each patient’s home to find anything unusual. Alarmingly, the results found something that no one could have been aware of.
Yes, they discovered high readings of the radioactive gas radon in the dwellings of some of the cancer patients. Now, radon is colorless and has no taste or smell, so can’t be detected without specialist equipment. And it’s a naturally occurring gas released when uranium in rocks, soil and water breaks down, and can become airborne.
When breathed in while outdoors, concentrations of radon are so low they are harmless. However, sometimes radon seeps into buildings from the ground via gaps in its foundations. When it collects in a confined area, its levels become far greater. But why were its effects more severe in those two Mooresville ZIP codes?
Well, the researchers’ attention turned to the Duke Energy-owned Marshall Steam Station. It’s a coal power plant situated on the opposite side of Lake Norman in the neighboring Catawba County. And the facility has four units, reportedly built between 1965 and 1970, that produce enough energy for around two million homes.
According to NBC News, the Marshall Steam Station has around 17 million tons of its coal ash emissions stored in a basin on its grounds. Without careful management, coal ash can seep into its environment, potentially causing a hazard to waterways, for example. Meanwhile, the basin Duke Energy use for coal ash storage is unlined.
Now you see, coal ash is loaded with the chemicals arsenic, mercury and cadmium. And prolonged exposure to any of these can be detrimental to health. While poisoning is a common hazard caused by all three chemicals, experts are studying connections between certain cancers and exposure to arsenic and cadmium.
Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency believes that, “without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air.” Indeed, in a separate study conducted by Duke University, coal ash basins in Illinois and Appalachia were found to have high levels of radioactivity.
Now, radioactivity can be cancer causing. However, some scientists believe it would take direct exposure for prolonged periods to cause something as serious as thyroid cancer. Indeed, a spokesperson for Duke Energy believes it’s only the cumulative effect of exposure to radiation that can be a risk to health.
Speaking on behalf of Duke Energy, Paige Sheehan told WCNC, “If I had a bottle of water here and I would drink [that] bottle of water, that water is perfectly safe for me. If I were to drink 50, that water would be toxic because it’s the dose and exposure that makes it toxic.”
Therefore, Sheehan argued that the toxins in coal ash are no more harmful that those in a bottle of water. Indeed, it’s a standpoint that the Department of Health and Human Services supports. A report it released in January 2019 concluded that, “no published studies… support an association between coal ash exposure and thyroid cancer.”
Nevertheless, environmental officials in North Carolina ordered Duke Energy to clean up their act in 2019. And now a massive operation is planned to transfer Duke’s coal ash from unlined basins to lined on-site landfills. Overall, coal ash deposits amounting to 80 million tons will be moved as part of the biggest environmental cleanup of its kind in the States.
As for Taylor Wind, doctors removed the cancerous lump from her thyroid in 2017, and the teenager is now in remission. However, she undergoes a strict medical routine to reenact the function her thyroid once performed. Susan also complained of ongoing effects from her daughter’s ordeal regarding her skin, hair and stomach, as well as fatigue.
Meanwhile the Winds have since relocated to Florida where 19-year-old Taylor is studying to become a nurse. Nevertheless, Susan is still worried about their old neighborhood in Mooresville. Yes, she is concerned that, “People don’t really see things until it happens to them.” Crucially, Duke University expects to release its full findings later in 2020.