2006.01.19 – TRI-COUNTY CANCER CLUSTERS: OVER 300 PACK HOMETOWN FIRE CO. SEEKING ANSWERS

By Donald R. Serfass, dserfass@tnonline.com
The Times-News, © 2006

January 19, 2006

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“Chemical carcinogens link liver neoplasms to exposure,” says Dr. Peterick at Wednesday’s public forum to discuss results of a Department of Health study on cancer incidence in the local area. Baddick presented photos of a diseased fish he said was caught in the source drinking water for the Tamaqua area.

At a meeting held in the backyard of three Superfund sites, the state Department of Health tried to sell a cancer-lifestyle link.

Local residents, however, weren’t buying.

Over 300 jammed into Hometown Fire Company on Wednesday evening to hear results of a 15-month descriptive study into cancer incidence as conducted by the DOH’s Bureau of Epidemiology.

Instead of focusing on a narrow geographic area, such as Ben Titus Road, a known trouble spot, the study looked at reported cancer cases in Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties over a seven-year period from 1996 to 2002.

It included 80 zip codes and looked at 27 different types of cancer.

The results of the statistical report fall short of providing the answers people were looking for.

In fact, DOH officials said that no DOH in the country is equipped to do a cause and effect study, the kind needed to draw a connection between cancer cases and pollutants in the environment.

But it took almost two hours before that information was made clear at the public forum.

From the start, local residents tried to get direct answers from the DOH representatives. But the responses often were verbose and circuitous.

“Will you do a cause and effect study,” asked Mike Polyak, Tamaqua.

In response, DOH epidemiologist Dr. Gene Weinberg provided a lengthy explanation of how a study is typically performed. He failed to give a yes or no answer.

Polyak also took the DOH to task presenting misleading information. The DOH claims that polycythemia vera, the rare blood disorder uncovered among residents of Ben Titus Road, has no known causes. Yet the department admits that the subject has never been studied.

“How can you say that it has no known cause when you’ve never studied it,” Polyak asked.

No answer was provided.

Weinberg admitted that “cancer is a big problem in Pennsylvania with 492,000 new cases in the seven-year period.”

His presentation focused on common cancers: colorectal, lung, breast and prostate.

He attributed colorectal cancer to dietary habits, and lung cancer to smoking.

“Ninety percent of the cases would disappear if we didn’t have smoking,” he said. He attributed women’s breast cancer to “factors they carry with them such as hormones prior to pregnancy.”

He acknowledged that cases of Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkins lymphoma could be traced to “viruses, HIV and exposure to environmental pollutants.”

In mentioning polycythemia vera, Weinberg stated that it is “a disorder of the stem cells and it’s highest rate is among Jews of European descent. We know little about how it arises. In terms of environmental causes, I haven’t been able to find something that gives me a lead into it. The difficulty is making a link to the environment.”

When it became apparent that a special project would be required to provide answers, Tamaqua resident Ann Simard asked how that might be accomplished.

“How do we go about getting a study done because that’s what we need,” Simard asked.

At that point, Lansford native Dr. Sam Leshko, sitting in the audience, stood up and said the usual approach would be to “find an investigator who is interested in the hypothesis. They will then write a grant proposal to the National Cancer Institute.”

Funding is an essential component of the process, Leshko said.

One man yelled out that the state should be able to come up with the funds because, after all, “they came up with money for Cabela’s.”

West Penn resident Dr. Peter Baddick presented full color photos of a large mouth bass caught in Still Creek Reservoir. The reservoir supplies drinking water to a filtration plant, which then distributes it to the Tamaqua area. The fish was diseased. Baddick used visuals and scientific papers to present proof that environmental factors are known to lead to the tumors found in the fish.

“Chemical carcinogens link liver neoplasms to exposure,” he said.

In other words, the diseased fish can be considered a “sentinel animal” providing proof of an unhealthy ecosystem according to Baddick and corroborating scientific studies.

He also suggested that earlier testing shows the presence of high levels of zinc, beryllium, lead and arsenic in the local water supply.

Baddick said the DOH did a fair job with its descriptive study. The DOH was more responsive than the Department of Environmental Protection, he said.

He warned those in attendance to heed the lessons of science and truth, and to acknowledge the health threats.

“Its presence is being deliberately denied,” said Baddick.

He cautioned leaders to “stop the deception. Stop the suppression of evidence….stop the diversion from the truth, so help us God.”

Brian Connely, chairman, Tamaqua Area Water Authority, said that his group has supported testing and will continue.

“Let’s see what we can find out,” Connely said, adding there are costs to be considered as well.

“Where does a small water authority get that kind of money,” he asked.

On a positive note, Rep. Dave Argall said that he and Sen. James Rhoades would be able to secure help for additional water testing.

In his welcome remarks at the start of the evening, Argall said the study is not about numbers, but people.

“We have a serious, weighty problem.”

Also on hand was state Rep. Keith McCall.

Local residents said there is plenty of reason to be worried about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s policies on health and environment.

All three local Superfund sites – McAdoo Associates, Eastern Diversified Metals and Tonolli Mfg. – were created through the Department of Enviromental Protection’s permitting and inspection process.

“They allowed all this bad stuff to happen. How can we possibly expect straight answers,” said one man walking out the door.

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