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

January 30, 2006

HOMETOWN — An expert says any study of local cancers that have been sources of concern should focus on links between specific varieties of the disease and exposure in the environment.

Dr. Samuel M. Lesko, a Lansford, Carbon County, native who is director of research for the Northeast Regional Cancer Institute, Scranton, also said in an interview that such an undertaking would be “a difficult thing to sort out” and added that a tumor in a fish caught in Tamaqua’s Still Creek Reservoir could be a “bio marker” of environmental contamination.

However, Lesko said less would likely be learned from studying rare cancers like polycythemia vera, which has caused the greatest concern locally, than by studying more common cancers already known to be linked to toxic exposure.

In June 2004, a Carbon County environmental group raised local alarm by announcing that three and possibly four cases of polycythemia vera, a rare cancer characterized by an excessive red blood cell count, had been diagnosed along Ben Titus Road.

The residents and the reservoir, both located in Rush Township, are less than two miles from a former Kline Township Superfund site, McAdoo Associates, where, during the 1970s, nearly 7,000 barrels of contaminants were stored.

The rare cancer cases heightened concerns by local citizens and environmentalists about a link between the former Surperfund site and the disease.

A recently released state Department of Health statistical analysis indicating there isn’t a higher local cancer rate than in other areas has been criticized by environmentalists who suspect otherwise.

A comprehensive cancer study, however, “can get to be a very large undertaking,” Lesko said last week in an interview.

Specifically, he recommended focusing on incidences of leukemia, lymphoma, kidney cancer and primary cancer of the liver if such cancers were elevated locally.

Raleigh, N.C., journalist and Hometown native Sue Sturgis said that at least four cases of kidney cancer, including her father’s, were diagnosed within a few blocks of Frankford Avenue in Hometown in recent years.

Sturgis operates a Web site, “Hometown Hazards, A Rural Pennsylvania Community Battles Toxic Pollution” which focuses on local environmental concerns.

Last week, Tamaqua borough Mayor Christian P. Morrison called again for more extensive testing of the Still Creek Reservoir, where a West Penn physician and environmental activist says a diseased fish was found.

“In the interest of the safety and health of borough residents, I am requesting state assistance in obtaining funding for comprehensive testing” of the reservoir, Morrison wrote to Rep. David G. Argall, R-124.

Morrison also called for a broader “cause-and-effect” study of local cancers, but Lesko said the likelihood of identifying a single source of contaminants responsible for local illness is slim.

Lesko attended a public meeting held in Hometown to review the statistical cancer review by the health department. He said he would be willing to attempt a study with adequate funding.

According to Lesko, a comprehensive study could involve up to 1,000 individuals for every cancer investigated with about half of those having been diagnosed with the disease and the other half representing a control group consisting of healthy individuals.

An exhaustive family and medical history of each subject would then need to be assembled to ensure that environmental exposure to an identifiable contaminant rather than other factors had contributed to the disease, Lesko said.

Possible funding sources for the study might include federal money through the National Cancer Institute, he said.

A spokesman for state Sen. James J. Rhoades, R-29, said that Rhoades would likely approach U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, both Pennsylvania Republicans, and U.S. Rep. T. Timothy Holden, D-17, to tap money for a more extensive study.

Lesko said another option would be to have state lawmakers issue a request for proposals for the project. He said a cost estimate for the study would only be possible with a review of local cancer statistics to determine the size of the undertaking.