By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief, shessinger@republicanherald.com
The REPUBLICAN & Herald, © 2006

January 19, 2006

HOMETOWN – They came to hear the results of a health study 15 months in the making. In the end, though, more than 250 people whose cars filled the parking lot at the Hometown Fire Company, spilling over onto an adjacent field and basketball court, seemed disappointed by what they heard.

“I’m not very happy about it. I thought we would get some answers,” said wheelchair-bound Betty Kester, who sat near the front of the crowded fire company social hall listening to a presentation by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

In June 2004, an environmental group reported that Kester and three others, including her husband, Lester, and a neighbor living along Ben Titus Road in Rush Township, had all contracted a rare, blood-thickening cancer called polycythemia vera.

The announcement touched off alarm because of the close proximity of the former McAdoo Associates site where, between 1978 and 1979, an estimated 7,000 drums and six above-ground tanks contained volatile organic compounds, according to an Environmental Protection Agency Web site.

“People with this condition have thick blood, and it’s so thick that they have strokes,” said Dr. Gene Weinberg, an epidemiologist with the Department of Health as Kester looked on in silence.

Weinberg insisted the state’s study had not showed a statistically higher rate of the rare cancer in Schuylkill County than the state average, nor, he said, was a causal agent known for the disease.

However, one member of the audience, Dante J. Picciano, a West Penn Township patent attorney and environmental activist, presented other statistics.

Picciano, who holds a doctorate in genetics, served as former scientific director for Biogenics Corp., Houston, Texas, and supervised a study on the now-famous Love Canal community where a chemical company dumped 21,800 tons of pesticides and other potentially hazardous materials in steel drums near Niagara, N.Y., in one of the most famous environmental contamination cases in U.S. history.

Picciano said data from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Schuylkill and Luzerne counties combined have 2.3 times the normal rate of polycythemia vera when compared to the national average.

He said the rate of cervical cancer in Schuylkill County is nearly twice the national average, while the rate of colorectal cancer is 71.5 cases per 100,000 as compared to a national average of 53.1 cases per 100,000.

“We’re not trying to force the outcome. You are trying to force the outcome. This is a no spin zone,” Picciano said.

The health department study, which compares cancer rates in Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties to the state rather than national average, says the four most common cancers, prostate, breast, colon-rectum and lung, account for 55.4 percent of cases as compared to 56.5 percent of cases statewide.

However, residents balked at the suggestion that lifestyle rather than environment was to blame for health problems in the region.

Jean Wargo of Haddock, Kline Township, said most residents in northern Schuylkill County live in close proximity to six cogeneration plants and three Superfund sites.

“We’re not getting sick from all this? It’s because we smoke or we don’t watch our diet? I think there’s something wrong with this study,” Wargo said.

Dr. Peter Baddick, a West Penn Township physician, suggested a more detailed causal study be done in the area after showing photos of what he described as a 17-inch large mouth bass with a tumorcaught at Tamaqua’s 2.7 billion-gallon Still Creek Reservoir.

The reservoir borders Ben Titus Road where the Kesters reside and is also just over a mile from the McAdoo Associates site, where Baddick has said thousands of gallons of contaminants may have been poured into underground mine workings before authorities took action.

Brian Connely, chairman of the Tamaqua Area Water Authority, which operates the Still Creek Reservoir, said the authority spent $3,000 on a study of the water and was open to further suggestions.

State Rep. David G. Argall, R-124, and state Sen. James J. Rhoades, R-29, assured residents they would seek funding for a more detailed study if experts can agree on a method.