By Sam Galski
The Standard-Speaker, © 2004

June 3, 2004

Three residents living along a 0.4-mile stretch of Ben Titus Road in Still Creek have been diagnosed with a rare bone cancer.

Concerned that more people could be subject to illness, approximately 50 residents from several communities from throughout Schuylkill and Carbon counties are calling on state and federal health officials to conduct an in-depth health study to determine if the disease is linked to the McAdoo Associates Superfund Site.

The group organized after Still Creek resident Betty Kester read a column in a local newspaper submitted by Frank Waksmunski, president of the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians.

The article, titled “Water, What Are You Drinking,” focused on why residents should test drinking wells – and how many people don’t.

Kester had been diagnosed in 2001 with polycythemia vera (a rare bone cancer) and originally believed drinking water played a factor in her diagnosis.

She contacted Waksmunski last August and began looking into polycythemia and other cancers reported along Ben Titus Road.

Though the chance of being diagnosed with the rare bone cancer is 1 in 200,000, Waksmunski said the three confirmed cases – and a potential for a fourth – at such a small number of homes along the highway simply doesn’t add up.

“Within that 0.4 of a mile, we have three people who have a disease that you have a 1 in 200,000 chance of getting,” Waksmunski said.

He then contacted state Rep. Dave Argall for help in getting state and federal environmental officials to check into drinking wells in Kester’s neighborhood.

Argall wrote to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency and federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

With the “subject area” downgrade from McAdoo Associates, Waksmunski said that he couldn’t help but to consider the site a potential “main cause of illnesses.”

State and federal officials replied to Argall’s concerns for residents living along the highway, but Waksmunski said that state officials said there was “no evidence” to support the theory that McAdoo Associates could’ve spurred the health concerns.

The EPA, he said, used broader language in stamping out the concerns, saying there “probably” was no water from the site flowing to Ben Titus Road.

“(The state) said in a geological study that groundwater was flowing east to west, causing water to go into the Little Schuylkill River,” he said.

“Now, I’m not a geologist, but once water goes underground, you really don’t know where it’s going. There’s not solid rock and there’s always cracks and fractures that water can seep through.”

Despite its decree that “nothing was wrong,” the state offered some assistance.

“(The DEP) said initially it would test two wells, but not Betty Kester’s well because the readings (recorded by other agencies) didn’t exceed removal action limits,” he said.

An unidentified McAdoo woman who spoke at the meeting said she also approached the DEP with a request to investigate the situation, but said officials wouldn’t investigate reports of legal dumping unless they had actual reports it had occurred.

State officials also told her to “make up maps” of the area and determine where suspected problem spots were, Waksmunski said.

Another issue discussed at the meeting was the state Department of Health’s (PADOH’s) cancer mortality rate studies conducted throughout the years.

The first analysis, he said, dates back to December 1985 and found that McAdoo Borough and Kline Township had a “lower than normal” cancer mortality rate. A second study, released in 1989, focused on McAdoo and 13 contingous municipalities and found that the cancer mortality rate was “a little bit lower than normal” when compared to state figures.

The third and final study was released on 1993 – only a year after a cleanup of the site had been completed.

Waksmunski said the “death rate was 5.8-percent higher than expected” in McAdoo Borough, Kline and Rush townships, when compared to statewide figures.

Eight different cancer types were reviewed as well, but were considered 5 percent above expectations, or “close to what’s expected” by state health officials, he said.

Waksmunski asked how the state considered 5.8 percent higher than expected in terms of overall deaths while a 5 percent increase in cancer was considered “close to what’s expected.”

Waksmunski distributed a sign-in sheet so that meeting attendees could keep in contact and better prepare data for future meetings.

Since he’s from Palmerton and involved with the Groundwater Guardians, Waksmunski said it would make better sense for local residents to take charge of the newly formed group.

Dr. Pete Baddick, of Lehighton’s Penn Medical Group, and Sharon Cimino both offered to organize the group.

Additional discussion focused on other contaminated areas in the county, including a residents’ concern for emissions at co-gen plant outside of McAdoo and concerns for a fuel spill and fluff pile (leftover contaminated residue) at sites in Hometown.

Baddick, at one point, said he knew of five fatal leukemia cases documented at homes near the intersection of Route 309 and the Still Creek Road.

The doctor said that a most recent vital statistics book he received from PADOH said cancer rates were logged at 14,700 in Pennsylvania in 2001 and ballooned to 70,800 in 2003.

“I think Rush Township is a toxic time bomb,” he said. “It may have one of the highest rates on the planet.”

Argall said he would push to set up a public forum so that representatives from the above agencies can personally address residents’ concerns.

State and federal environmental and health officials could not be reached for comment as of late Wednesday.