2009.07.08 – A comment on local cancer rates and the environment

Posted by Sue Sturgis

A comment on local cancer rates and the environment

The Times News has a story in today’s paper titled “Rare blood disease hits home” about one man’s experience with polycythemia vera and the public meeting slated for July 9 in Tamaqua about the plans for more research on the local cluster of that disease. I shared a comment at the paper’s website that I also wanted to share with Hometown Hazards readers. Here it is in full.

Thanks to Mr. Wertman for having the courage to talk publicly about his illness, to Donnie Serfass for his reporting, and to the Times-News for publishing this story, which helps give a human face to a serious problem affecting the anthracite coal region.

I’d like to share my thoughts about one particular point, to wit: “Some believe the problem is based on industrial pollution, past or present. At the very least, environmental factors are considered a suspect.”

That’s true. But it’s important to keep in mind who that “some” includes, because it’s not only those of us who’ve lived in the area with open eyes and basic common sense who believe environmental pollution is a likely factor behind the unusual cancer patterns. The independent and government scientists who studied the local incidence of the disease also reached that conclusion.

“The close proximity of this cluster to known areas of hazardous material exposure raises concern that such environmental factors might play a role in the origin of polycythemia vera,” the researchers said in their published study.

And that was not an easy thing for them to say. As study author Dr. Ronald Hoffman of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine revealed in his sworn testimony earlier this year during a U.S. House subcommittee hearing, ATSDR‘s management first tried to discourage that research and then tried to prevent the publishing of findings suggesting an environmental connection.

“My sense is that if the agency was left to itself, it would have preferred to ignore the problem,” he said.

Hoffman also told Congress that ATSDR misrepresented the study’s findings at the October 2007 community meeting in Hazleton (a meeting that lead ATSDR researcher Dr. Seaman missed because his bosses had dispatched him to Africa not long before), demanded that Hoffman not exhibit the maps showing a geographic relationship between PV cases and pollution sources at a national hematology meeting and — when he refused — pestered him with repeated phone calls demanding that he either withdraw the abstract of his research, tell the conference that the agency disagreed with him, or present an abridged version of the data.

He called it an “obvious attempt at intimidation.”

Also keep in mind that polycythemia vera is not the only cancer that occurs in the tri-county area at an unusually high rate: The Pa. Department of Health Study of cancer rates from 1996 to 2002 also found statistically significantly elevated rates of other cancers:

* In Schuylkill County, buccal cavity and pharynx cancer for males and overall; colon and rectum for males, females and overall; liver cancer overall; pancreatic cancer for females and overall; bronchus and lung cancer for females; cervix and uterine cancer; prostate cancer; and Hodgkin’s lymphoma overall.

* In Luzerne County, stomach cancer for males, females and overall; colon and rectum cancer for males and overall; larynx cancer for males and overall; bronchus and lung cancer for females and overall; uterine cancer; thyroid cancer for females and overall; and leukemias for males, females and overall.

* In Carbon County, melanoma of the skin overall.

Some of those cancers could probably be blamed on unhealthy lifestyle choices, sure — but not all of them. The fact is, too many people in this area are suffering from serious diseases because of the unhealthy choices of polluters and the government.