Doubt on cancer cluster legislation

http://www.mcall.com/news/nationworld/pennsylvania/mc-pa-cancer-cluster-legislation-20110710,0,6315339.story

By Andrew McGill, Of The Morning Call
9:57 p.m. EDT, July 10, 2011

Some fear measure, which would create ‘first-responder’ task force, may not be genuine effort to protect public health in Carbon, Schuylkill, Luzerne counties.

Merle Wertman has been kept waiting a long time.

Eight years ago, doctors diagnosed him with polycythemia vera, a rare cancer that thickens the blood to a sludge only bloodletting can relieve. His neighbors in Tamaqua had just started to speak up, to declare something was wrong in the coal region, something that made people sick.

Eight years, millions of dollars in grants and countless studies later, investigators still don’t know why Wertman fell ill or why so many of his neighbors in this rural region share the same disease.

So every time the 66-year-old sits at a public meeting, checks his hemoglobin count or makes the twice-monthly trip to Coaldale for treatment, he can’t help but wonder: Are we being ignored?

“This is going on for eight years, and we’re getting no headway with it,” he said. “There’s no answer.”

Concerned by reports of cancer clusters in his own district near Wilkes-Barre, state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, proposed a bill last week for a statewide cancer cluster task force that would investigate cases like the coal region’s.

Pitched as a union between the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Protection, the team would be the state’s first responders, evaluating the situation and calling in the feds if necessary.

His measure drew applause from residents in Pittston, who say runoff from a local mine has sickened dozens. But  those who have been here before — namely weary members of the coal region’s Community Action Committee, the guardians of the area’s only federally-confirmed cancer cluster — have learned to be skeptical.

“My fear is that this is not a genuine effort to protect public health,” said Henry Cole, an environmental scientist from Upper Marlboro, Md. and the committee’s hired expert. “My fear is that it will be used to funnel public discontent into a system that can be controlled without any real protection.”

Yudichak’s bill would require the Department of Health to develop guidelines for investigating cancer clusters. It would bring together a team of experts in epidemiology, toxicology, pollution control and other specialties to look into complaints and write a report.

Anyone could submit a petition to call in the response team. The Department of Health would consider the site’s local pollution sources, significant health threats or the lack of good data.

“Any way that you can make the bureaucracy of state or federal government work more efficiently is a good thing,” Yudichak said. “Particularly when you’re talking about an emotional issue like this.”

The senator wrote the bill amid complaints from residents in Pittston, who said they had to go to local television stations before anyone would look into the high rate of cancer in some neighborhoods. The Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t found evidence of a cluster and said it won’t investigate further, residents say.

He’s lauded by his Luzerne County supporters, who say the bill would set into statute a clear path to addressing their concerns.

The subjects of the coal region’s cancer cluster study aren’t so sure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been investigating the cluster, which spans Carbon, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties, for nearly five years, making those who live in the area all too aware of the government’s limitations.

Joe Murphy, president of the Community Action Committee remembers 2004, when representatives from the Department of Health told him a cancer problem “didn’t exist.” DEP is hardly more popular. At a meeting in Tamaqua in June, residents heaved a collective sigh of exasperation when a DEP spokesman said tests to determine a cause haven’t found anything conclusive.

Neither state agency has the experts necessary to effectively investigate cancer clusters, Murphy said. For example, he said, much of the groundwork in the Tamaqua investigation has been outsourced to universities and professional contractors.

It’s also unclear how Yudichak’s team would be financed. The current bill doesn’t appropriate funds, and the senator admits both departments may have to use existing equipment and personnel.

That’s what Cole, a veteran and skeptic of government investigations , calls a recipe for neglect. He’s doubtful Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration would push the envelope on environmental issues, particularly when industry could stand to lose.

“They function in accordance with the policy of the executive branch of government, which is to promote energy development — with environmental protection taking the back seat in the bus,” he said. “This bill would do little to change that.”

Despite his distrust, Wertman is willing to give Yudichak’s bill a chance. Anything is better than being ignored, the polycythemia vera patient said. And hope does spring eternal.

“The more people you get involved, the better,” he said. “I’m not in love with DEP, don’t get me wrong, but maybe there’d be someone that could turn things around.”

andrew.mcgill@mcall.com
610-820-6533

Comments

One Response to “Doubt on cancer cluster legislation”
  1. Christopher Menichini says:

    By no means have we applauded the efforts by senator Yudichak. It makes me sick to know that they push people to the side on a daily basis. Honestly I think they need to restructure the EPA and DEP. Nothing is ever done. People are losing their homes and loved ones. How many people have to suffer the same fate. Not being able to support their families because they can’t work to provide. I will fight them until the day I die. I will be the thorn in their side until something is done. If people join together to fight instead of a few individuals it makes a difference. The government does not care about the people. Their pockets are to deep to care. They think we will just go away, and forget about this. Well I have no plans of going away.

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