2004.09.28 – AREA CANCER RATE ABOVE NORM
But Health Department says it’s not enough to merit further study.
By Chris Parker
The Morning Call Inc., Copyright 2004
Reprinted with permission
September 28, 2004
A state study measuring the frequency and types of cancers in Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties shows a higher-than-average number of some cancers but not enough to merit a closer look, the state says.
The state Health Department will discuss the study at 7 p.m. Oct. 6 at the Quakake Fire Company.
The study, prompted by reports of an unusually high incidence of a rare bone marrow disease in the Ben Titus Road area of Rush Township, did not examine possible links between industrial pollution and cancer.
”There was never any intent to discover any causality for any of the cancer we hope to review,” said Joel H. Hersh, director of the Health Department’s Bureau of Epidemiology.
”It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible” to directly link particular cancers to particular causes, Hersh said.
”There is no smoking gun,” he said.
The study, which also measured cancer risk, ”does not support the suggestion that environmental contamination contributes to the cancer rates,” wrote Deputy Secretary for Health Planning and Assessment Michelle S. Davis.
That conclusion disappointed those who believe that area people suffer from illnesses caused by pollution leaching from several nearby industrial sites, including the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site in Kline Township.
”I didn’t like what I saw,” said Frank Waksmunski, who heads a grass-roots environmental group called the Groundwater Guardians.
Waksmunski organized public meetings to question the link between pollution and what he and others believe is an unusually high number of serious illnesses on Ben Titus Road.
”I thought the information was too general,” he said. ”I didn’t see any data there on Ben Titus Road. All the pollution is uphill from Ben Titus Road.”
The department wants to do a more detailed study but would need to review the medical records of the people who say they have been diagnosed with the rare bone marrow disease, called polycythemia vera.
Those people have refused to allow the Health Department access to their records or even to talk with representatives about their health.
Quakake resident Betty Kester and her husband, Lester, say they have been diagnosed with polycythemia vera.
”My doctor won’t release” my medical records, she said. ”He says he’s not ready to release them.”
Waksmunski said the people who say they have been diagnosed with the disease ”decided they wanted to see the health study first before they released their medical records to the Department of Health.”
”One of them consulted a lawyer, who advised them not to do anything,” he said. ”And I had to agree with that. I was afraid that would look at the health records of these people and find something that would explain the disease, and then they would not look hard enough at environmental contamination causes.”
Hersh, the state Bureau of Epidemiology director, said, ”For me, that’s a dead end at this point.”
The Health Department study, which took two months, counted cases of 23 types of cancers in nine ZIP code areas in McAdoo, Tamaqua, Nesquehoning, Coaldale, Lansford, Summit Hill, Weatherly, Beaver Meadows and Quakake.
The data came from reports by doctors, who, by state law since 2001, must report diagnosed cancers. The cancers in the data were diagnosed between 1996 and 2001.
The study found higher-than-average numbers of skin cancer in Carbon County; oral, uterine, larynx, colon-rectum and cervical cancers in Schuylkill County; and stomach, thyroid, colon-rectum, larynx and uterine cancers in Luzerne County.
It found polycythemia vera in only one ZIP code, 18237, which is McAdoo.
But the disease was found in all three counties in areas outside the study: one in Carbon, nine in Schuylkill and 11 in Luzerne, according to the Health Department.
The Schuylkill rate was ”statistically significant,” or higher than average, the study found.
State Rep. David G. Argall, R-Schuylkill, who asked the state to do the study, vowed to resolve the matter.
”I’ve been working with local residents to find answers, and I will continue to work with them until we get answers,” he said.
The Health Department studied the area in 1993 and determined no pollutants migrated from the McAdoo Associates site.
Polycythemia vera is an abnormal increase in blood cells (primarily red blood cells) resulting from excess production by the bone marrow, according to the National Institutes of Health.
It occurs more often in men than in women, and rarely in patients under age 40. It is not known what causes polycythemia vera, which develops slowly.
For Joe Murphy of Hometown, who said he has multiple sclerosis, the study raises more questions than it answers.
”The study is concerning,” Murphy said, citing the high incidence of polycythemia vera. ”Now maybe we can concentrate on how these folks contracted this disease.
”This is not about finger-pointing or blame. It’s about finding out where it’s coming from, what is happening. There’s just too much … and it all can’t come down to occupation and lifestyle.”