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

October 4, 2004

TAMAQUA – As a public hearing looms on Wednesday, a West Penn Township physician is raising questions about a study conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

A meeting with the department and members of the community is scheduled for 7 p.m.Wednesday at the Quakake Fire Company to discuss the study prompted by the incidence of polycythemia vera, a rare blood disease, in three Rush Township residents.

Dr. Peter J. Baddick, a local physician who has raised concern on other environmental issues, is questioning the study, which seems to downplay environmental connections with cancer incidence in northeastern Schuylkill County.

“I think there is a cancer problem in this area. I think any doctor in this area will agree with me,” Baddick insisted.

But Joel H. Hersh, director of the state department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, said the statistical survey, which surfaced two weeks ago, is not necessarily the last word on the subject.

“There are additional things we are prepared to do,” Hersh said Friday, adding that he expects to take “some hits for the commonwealth” at the Wednesday night session, which promises to be highly charged due to public concern.

Baddick is critical of the study, which surveyed reported cancer cases in nine local zip codes, saying it both failed to examine actual case histories and diluted findings by including an artificial “expected” number based on statewide cancer rates.

“The Department of Health didn’t come to the area and interview any of the patients. They didn’t do a clinical study to determine the causes of any of these cancers,” Baddick complained.

Baddick has compiled data of his own that he believes demonstrates conclusively a cause for concern both in the area immediately surrounding a former Superfund site near Ben Titus Road in Rush Township and farther south where runoff from the site could have impacted Tamaqua’s Still Creek Reservoir.

On Wednesday, Tamaqua borough council discussed a plan to test the fish in the reservoir after concern was raised over the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site just over a mile away.

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (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.

First, Baddick said a door-to-door survey conducted by Cathy A. Miorelli, an Owl Creek resident with a master’s degree in nursing, found 53 incidences of cancer in a 4-mile radius of the site, a fairly rural area four miles north of Tamaqua.

Baddick said he personally knows of 21 cases of leukemia in the immediate area, which has been linked to benzene exposure, one of the substances once stored at the McAdoo Associates site.

Second, Baddick said just one local clinic, the Switchback Medical Center on Lentz Trail just outside Jim Thorpe and just over the Carbon County line, had reported 126 new cases of cancer between 2001 and 2004.

He suggested a check of additional clinics would reveal an even better picture of the problems locally.

Third, Baddick said two new cases of polcythemia vera, a disease that Baddick claims has a likelihood of 1 in 200,000 or less, have recently been diagnosed in the borough’s Dutch Hill section raising concerns in his mind about contamination of the Still Creek Reservoir which supplies the borough.

But Hersh cautioned that polycythemia vera is such a newly classified cancer – the health department says the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry only started collecting incidence data in 2001 – that assigning a rate of occurrence is problematic.

Still, Hersh added that though the disease has no scientifically established cause, higher risk has been identified among embalmers, funeral directors, oil refinery workers and others exposed to volatile organic solvents.

Hersh said additional steps the state department of health might take would include contacting physicians to determine whether patients would consent to be questioned by health department officials about possible causes for their illnesses.

Still, Hersh insisted limited information on the causes of various types of cancer and on possible exposures might make establishing direct causes difficult.