NO LINK IN RUSH POLLUTION, RARE CANCER — Environmental group doubts state’s verdict
By Jill C. Whalen
The Standard-Speaker, © 2004

September 28, 2004

USA – The Pennsylvania Department of Health has completed its study of cancer cases in areas near a former chemical disposal site.The statistical study, which looked at nine communities in Schuylkill and Carbon counties, found no link between cancer incidents and environmental pollution.

But the former leader of an environmental group thinks the study focused on too broad an area, and true results might have become diluted.

The study was ordered after several incidents of polycythemia vera were reported along the Ben Titus Road in Rush Township. A total of three individuals who live less than a half-mile apart from each other were recently diagnosed with the disease, which is a cancer of the bone marrow that causes an overproduction of red blood cells.

Because the disease typically affects one in every 200,000 individuals, concerned residents led by Frank Waksmunski, former president and current member of the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians, called for a meeting with Department of Health officials. At that July meeting, many said they feared the disease was a result of the area’s proximity to the former McAdoo Associates site.

Based on information received at that meeting, the Department of Health ordered a study of communities surrounding the former McAdoo Associates. Using ZIP codes, health officials studied the Schuylkill County communities of Tamaqua, McAdoo, Quakake, and Coaldale, and the Carbon County communities of Beaver Meadows, Lansford, Nesquehoning, Summit Hill and Weatherly.

“My general feeling is that this is not the report we asked for,” Waksmunski said. “We wanted more specific data. I wanted them to look at Ben Titus Road and not the entire ZIP code.”

Waksmunski believed that health officials should have studied the area where the rare cases of cancers are clustered.

But Department of Health officials said previously that conclusions cannot be drawn from small samples. Studies are typically based on blocks of 1,000 individuals.

Waksmunski also wanted the study to focus on diseases in the Ben Titus Road area other than cancer.

According to Michelle S. Davis, the department’s deputy secretary for health planning and assessment, the study compared incident rates for a total of 25 different cancers in those communities to the statewide average.

The study, however, looked into rates for the period spanning from 1996 to 2001.

“Rates are shown for polycythemia vera but only for the year 2001. Polycythemia vera is a newly classified cancer which the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry began collecting in 2001,” Davis wrote in a letter detailing the report.

Only one incident of polycythemia vera for the nine ZIP codes was reported in the study. The three incidents of the cancer along the Ben Titus Road were not included in the study because they did not fall within the time frame studied.

Extensive studies have not yet been completed on the disease.

“The cause is not known and there is no known link to radiation exposure,” Davis wrote. “A similar disease is seen in mice from a virus, but no viral relationship has been found for human disease.”

But a Carbon County Groundwater Guardians study links it to exposure to benzene and other organic solvents.

McAdoo Associates, a Superfund site, operated as an incineration facility and chemical dump. Thousands of barrels of toxic organic compounds were reportedly stored at the site. In the late 1980s, on-site materials were removed. But some fear that toxic substances are seeping from drums that may still be inside mine shafts on the property.

“My reason for wanting them to look at the Ben Titus Road is that there’s so much known pollution in the area above there,” Waksmunski said. “If any pollution is in the groundwater, it’s traveling down the hill to Ben Titus Road. From there, it hits a barrier – the Still Creek Reservoir – which keeps it from going anywhere south.”

The study does show some higher incidents of other types of cancer, including oral, cervical, skin, and uterine cancers.

“None of the elevated rates support a suggestion that pollutants from the ambient environment are responsible for these cancers, other than occupation,” Davis wrote.

“The types of cancer in the area, and the rates observed, does not support the suggestion that environmental contamination contributes to the cancer rates. Furthermore, there is no environmental data demonstrating that there are human exposures to carcinogens that could increase cancer risk.”

Health officials had planned a meeting to discuss the results with the public Sept. 20. But because of heavy flooding caused by Tropical Storm Ivan, the meeting was canceled.

The meeting has been rescheduled to Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Quakake Fire Co.

Waksmunski said he doesn’t plan to forget about the matter even though the report was completed.

“I hope to pursue this,” Waksmunski said. “I’m looking at this report as the first stop to solving this. I think we have to do more.”

The Carbon County Groundwater Guardians became involved in the matter in August 2003 after Ben Titus Road resident Betty Kester asked whether her well water caused her and her husband’s polycythemia vera. After some investigation, Waksmunski learned of another documented case and one possible case.

The Guardians then contacted state Rep. David G. Argall, R-124, who sent letters to the Department of Health, state Department of Environmental Protection, and the federal Emergency Management Agency, asking for an investigation into the matter.

Soon after, the Department of Health responded by saying an earlier study showed that no contaminants were capable of reaching any wells along Ben Titus Road. The EPA and DEP issued similar responses.

Not pleased with the response, the Guardians called for a press conference in June of this year at the Quakake Fire Co. There, it was learned that approximately 10 cases of cancer were recently diagnosed along the Ben Titus Road, with a total of 18 cases in the Still Creek area.

The Guardians asked DEP to test wells along the road, but recent results revealed that no harmful chemicals were found on even the lowest levels. Department of Health officials agreed to additional studies at the July meeting.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6119066/