A civil action and statistical assessments of the spatial pattern of disease: do we have a cluster?

Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2000 Oct;32(2):174-83. doi: 10.1006/rtph.2000.1428.


A reported "cluster" of excess childhood leukemia cases and possible environmental causes in Woburn, Massachusetts, formed a key motivation for the events described in the popular book and motion picture A Civil Action. Although statistical methods to assess spatial clustering existed prior to the events in Woburn, increasing interest in environmental risk factors and recent developments in geographical information systems and data availability prompt increased attention to such methods and their application to public health data. In this article, we review statistical and epidemiological concepts involved in the analysis of disease clusters. We discuss data issues, outline some methodological approaches, and illustrate ideas using data regarding leukemia incidence in upstate New York for the years 1978-1982.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Disease Outbreaks / statistics & numerical data*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Geography
  • Hazardous Waste / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Massachusetts / epidemiology
  • Motion Pictures*
  • New York / epidemiology
  • Precursor Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia-Lymphoma / epidemiology*
  • Precursor Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia-Lymphoma / etiology
  • Space-Time Clustering
  • Trichloroethylene / adverse effects


  • Hazardous Waste
  • Trichloroethylene