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The Phillies, Cancer, and the Unknown

What we know, what we don’t, and what we ought to do anyway

Veterans Stadium Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Walk into Citizens Bank Park through the left field gate, and you’ll see the bronze plaques making up the Phillies Wall of Fame laid out across the brickwork in front of you. The Wall is a chance for longtime fans to reminisce about old favorites and for newer fans to learn about the greats who came before their time; regardless of which category you fall into, you may find yourself wondering what the enshrined greats are doing now, or what they did in later life. Some of them went into coaching, some into broadcasting. Some pursued business ventures beyond baseball, finding success or failure, or both, along the way. If one looks into the post-playing lives of three of the Philly heroes honored on the wall—Tug McGraw, Darren Daulton, and John Vukovich—, they’ll find the unsettling fact that all three died of brain cancer before they reached the age of 60. Three other Phillies from the Veterans Stadium era died of the same disease– not merely cancer of the same organ, but the same type of brain cancer, glioblastoma.

On Tuesday, two journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Barbara Laker and David Gambacorta, published an article on their investigation, done in collaboration with scientists at the University of Notre Dame and Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories, into an unsettling question: what if there was something about the artificial turf at Veterans Stadium that had made those six Phillies alumni ill? The tests run on samples of the Veterans Stadium turf found the presence of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAS, infamous for the extremely long time that they persist in the environment and in bodies, have been linked to a host of ailments, including cancer. And there can be little doubt that PFAS really were present at the Vet; both labs found PFAS in the samples provided.

But the questions of what this means and how we ought to think about it are harder. The presence of PFAS in the turf and the unusually high rate of glioblastoma among the Phillies’ alumni (around three times greater than the average for men, per the Inquirer’s numbers) paints a suggestive, but maddeningly incomplete picture. Clusters of cancer in a relatively small group can be the result of shared exposure to a chemical or other carcinogenic factor, but they can also be the result of sheer chance.

Science is not merely the question of what we know, but also how certain we are that we know it. The statement that a link between a chemical and cancer has been shown can mean that we have rigorous laboratory evidence showing how the chemical leads to the development of cancer and epidemiological evidence suggesting that this is happening outside the lab. It can also mean that we have information that suggests a connection is plausible, but not much evidence beyond that. The link between PFAS and glioblastoma is closer to the latter.

If we are being honest and clear-eyed about what we do and don’t know, we cannot dismiss doubt and state with certainty that the deaths truly were the result of PFAS exposure. But we also cannot take the presence of doubt as an excuse to throw up our hands, claim that we cannot know anything, and do our best to bury our discomfort. Action does not demand total and complete certainty as a prerequisite, but rather acknowledgment that uncertainty exists. Even without knowing, or ever being able to know, if PFAS truly was the cause of the untimely deaths of the six players, we can insist that reasonable caution be taken when asking players to do something that might impact their health, whether it be playing on a new surface, accepting a medical treatment, or starting a new training or rehab regimen. We can insist that the concerns of players be taken seriously, and that cases in which they go unheard be swiftly addressed. Doing right by those we have lost demands no less.