By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief

The REPUBLICAN & Herald. Local News, © 2004

October 7, 2004

QUAKAKE – The Pennsylvania Department of Health agrees that more study may be needed to determine whether cases of polycythemia vera, a rare blood cancer, in the area of a former McAdoo Associates Superfund site may be related to contamination there.

Apparently stinging from numerous criticisms already leveled by members of the community after a department statistical study surfaced two weeks ago, health officials presented their findings at a public hearing Wednesday with many caveats.

“I don’t think that anybody thinks that this is the final step,” said state Rep. David G. Argall, R-124, as more then 50 members of the public filled the social hall of the Quakake Volunteer Fire Company near the edge of Rush Township.

Argall’s opponent in the race for the 124th Legislative District, Christian P. Morrison, Tamaqua, also attended the meeting but listened quietly through two hours of discussion.

Morrison has accused Argall of not being more proactive on numerous environmental issues in the district including McAdoo Associates.

In reviewing the department of health’s 28-page report, Gene B. Weinberg, director of the department’s division of epidemiology, readily admitted that cases of polycythemia vera seemed higher than expected in Schuylkill County.

With 2.69 cases of the disease statistically expected, the health department survey of reported cases for a single year – 2001 – showed that nine new cases had been diagnosed.

“But I would not swear that that number is absolutely accurate,” Weinberg added.

Among problems faced by the department are the relative newness of the disease’s classification, Joel H. Hersh, director of the Bureau of Epidemiology for the health department.

The health department says the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry only started collecting incidence data in 2001 and data from 2002 and 2003 are not yet available.

Another problem, Hersh insisted, was that with the increased trend of cancer diagnosis occurring in a private physician’s office or small clinic instead of by a hospital or lab, mandatory reporting is sometimes less than complete.

Despite this, Weinberg bristled when questioned by a West Penn Township physician critical of the report, Dr. Peter J. Baddick, about how complete statewide data was for other cancers, insisting that data is almost 99 percent complete.

Baddick and Hometown dentist, Dr. Richard H. Schietrumpf, complained that raw data should have been used to compile the study in an effort to determine whether the number of cancer cases is growing and comparing any such growth to other portions of Schuylkill County.

Instead, the health department used the statewide rates of various cancers and multiplied it by the population of Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties to determine what the expected rate for a smaller population might be.

The department then multiplied that data by a “z-score,” a number meant to determine whether the expected rate calculated was statistically significant.

But Schietrumpf insisted that the department’s method diluted the results of reported cancers in the area and that a more realistic comparison for the expected cancer rate might be the United States as a whole given Pennsylvania’s industrial past.

Hersh said the department would continue its studies, providing special software to physicians who have diagnosed large numbers of cancers in the area to simplify reporting.

He also said the department could use a computer mapping system furnished with cancer data to attempt to plot clusters of disease in the region.

But Thomas C. Gerhard, former Carbon County commissioner, and a resident of Hudsondale, near Weatherly said, considering the amount of contaminants introduced into groundwater in the region from various Superfund sites and gas and oil spills, the possible causes of local illness are self-evident.

In 2001, the EPA declassified the McAdoo Associates site from the Superfund list of the nation’s most serious uncontrolled or hazardous waste areas.

But EPA records show the eight-acre site just off Route 309 and a smaller .5-acre site on Blaine Street in McAdoo once contained everything from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to benzene and several other potentially harmful materials.

In June, the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians, a Palmerton-based environmental group, claimed to have located and documented three cases and possibly a fourth of polycythemia vera, a rare disease characterized by thickening of the blood due to excess production of red blood cells.

All three individuals live within close proximity to the former McAdoo Associates site where, between 1978 and 1979, almost 7,000 drums and six above-ground tanks contained volatile organic compounds, according to an EPA website.

Although local health officials insist the incidence of polcythemia vera is 1 in 200,000 or greater, state officials insist that number is closer to 1 in 46,000.

Here again local officials insist that the difference is that the state department is multiplying its figures by a local population number rather then using nationwide incidence rates.