By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief
The REPUBLICAN & Herald: Local News, © 2004

September 27, 2004

GINTHER – The Pennsylvania Department of Health claims a statistical study of nine communities in northeastern Schuylkill County and northwestern Carbon County shows no evidence of a link between local cancer cases and environmental contamination.

“The types of cancer in the area and the rates observed does not support the suggestion that environmental contamination contributes to the cancer rates,” wrote Michelle S. Davis, deputy secretary for health planning and assessment, in a letter reviewing the department’s findings.

However, community activists, who called for the study after three cases of extremely rare cancer were identified along Ben Titus Road in Rush Township near a former Superfund site, have their doubts about those conclusions.

Although a public meeting scheduled between representatives of the department and members of the community for earlier last week to discuss the results was canceled, some who got a look at the report early expressed further concern.

“I don’t like the way the report was done,” said Frank S. Waksmunski, president of the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians.

Waksmunski’s group raised concerns in March and again in June when he 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.

In the study of nine zip codes for McAdoo, Tamaqua, Quakake and Coaldale in Schuylkill County and Lansford, Summit Hill, Nesquehoning, Beaver Meadows and Weatherly in Carbon County, the health department did report finding some incidents of cancer higher than the state average.

However, community members admitted some confusion about the numbers provided in the report, including Cathy A. Miorelli, a resident of the Owl Creek section of Tamaqua.

Miorelli holds a master’s degree in nursing and has assisted in a door-to-door health survey in the area to identify possible health problems. She says she is particularly confused by a so-called “z-score” included in the study to explain statistical significance.

“I wish I knew where they got this number,” Miorelli said.

Calls to the department were not returned.

Another problem, Waksmunski said, is that the report is a statistical study, not a study of cancer cases in the specific communities to identify what Waksmunski called “clusters.”

“I knew they were going to do the study by zip codes, but I also wanted them to look at actual cancer cases,” Waksmunski said.

“This is why it is almost impossible to prove a cancer cluster,” he said.

A report compiled by the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians says three people, including a married couple, have been diagnosed and a fourth is undergoing evaluation for the rare bone marrow disease polycythemia vera.

Incidence is roughly one case in 200,000 persons and may be even rarer, said Dr. Peter J. Baddick, West Penn Township, a local physician and environmental activist.

Although the health department claims a cause for polycythemia vera is not known, the study by the Groundwater Guardians claims the disease has been linked to exposure to benzene and organic solvents including tetrachloroethylene and Stoddard solvent.

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

The Carbon County Groundwater Guardians were contacted by Betty Kester in August 2003 to determine whether she and her husband Lester’s contraction of the disease might be related to contamination of their drinking water.

The Kesters’ water supply comes from a 50-foot well that is 20 years old, according to the report.

A neighbor, William Hinkle, who lives within 100 yards of the Kesters and has a 125-foot well, has also contracted the disease.

Another member of Hinkle’s extended family, his wife’s nephew’s wife, Amy Werner, who also lives on Ben Titus Road, is being treated for “thick” blood, according to the report, and was placed on Coumadin.

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.

A website for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, reports PCBs to be associated with acne-like skin conditions in adults, neurobehavioral and immunological changes in children.

The site reports that long-term benzene exposure can affect bone marrow and cause anemia and leukemia.

Other materials once found in the soil of the McAdoo Associates site include phenol, a manufactured substance that, with skin exposure at high levels, has caused liver damage and hemolytic anemia.

Exposure to another substance found there, naphthalene, at high levels can destroy red blood cells and has been linked to cancer in animals.

Inhalation of beryllium, yet another substance found on the site, may result in irreversible and sometimes fatal scarring of the lungs.

Between 1975 and 1976, McAdoo Associates used both properties for a business that reclaimed metals from waste sludge. The site was ordered closed in 1979 due to numerous environmental compliance problems.

An estimated 6,790 drums of hazardous waste were removed from the property between 1981 and 1982, according to EPA records. In 1990, contaminated soil at the site was excavated. The site was “capped” in 1991 with a combination of soil and geotextile liners and then revegetated.

The public meeting with state health officials has not yet been rescheduled.