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

September 30, 2006

Health officials with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conceded local rates of a rare cancer may be high.

The agency, however, also said linking Polycythemia Vera to a single exposure out of numerous possible contaminants in the local environment might be difficult.

Representatives of the registry met with local physicians, concerned citizens and representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health on Friday at the Schuylkill County Ag Center, Pottsville.

“We accept the fact that there has been some environmental contamination in the past and perhaps still in the present, and that there may be some exposure,” said Vince Seaman, toxicologist with the agency’s Health Investigations Branch.

Although originally intended to be a closed meeting, the press was able to attend the discussions that lasted for more than three hours.

Aisha Jumaan, an epidemiologist with the federal registry, a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said federal officials would first need to collect adequate data on case incidence before sorting through a “soup” of possible sources.

Health officials will not be aided by the fact that the condition, part of a family of hematological illnesses that include leukemia, has never been directly linked to any exposure, although a connection to benzene exposure has been suspected.

Gene L. Weinberg, director of community epidemiology with the state Department of Health, said 22 new cases of the disease had been reported in the county between 2001 and 2004, an incidence of twice the state rate over the same period.

The state has documented only two cases in proximity to a controversial former Superfund site in eastern Schuylkill County, a site which has been blamed for many local health problems.

Dr. Peter J. Baddick, a West Penn Township physician, is among those locally who believe the rate of the rare disease is much higher.

Baddick promised to connect state and federal health officials with area physicians, who he said have catalogued many more cases of the disorder and other cancers.

Baddick estimated one oncology practice with two area locations had diagnosed nearly 90 cases of the disorder.

Weinberg said one problem with the state’s current method of collection for its disease registry is a system that collects data from hospitals and labs, but not necessarily individual physician’s practices.

There is also as much as a two-year lag before cancer data reported to the department is released due to the processing and “cleaning up” of raw numbers.

Weinberg said the state will seek a way to streamline that collection in order to provide federal officials with needed data on P Vera.

But DEP officials continue to insist that a list of possible sources of contamination does not include Tamaqua’s 2.7-billion-gallon Still Creek Reservoir.

The reservoir, a source of drinking water for Tamaqua and surrounding communities, has been suspected by residents and local environmental leaders because of its proximity to the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site.

Between 1978 and 1979, Rush Township resident and concerned citizen Joseph Murphy says inventory documents from the site show 18,000 drums and 400,000 gallons of contaminants were delivered to the site north of the reservoir along Route 309.

Materials delivered included manganese sludge, cyanide and benzene.

Also attending the session was Jim Leber, a former district mine inspector for the DEP. After the session, he said he urged the shutdown of the facility in 1976, claiming the company was not recycling metal from chemical wastes as its permit indicated.

“What they were really doing was they were dumping it down the mine holes,” Leber said.

Although state environmental officials insist monitoring wells have never shown signs of that contamination, environmentalists say the wells are only between 100 and 200 feet deep, while mine workings in the area may run deeper. Polycythemia Vera overview

_ Definition: Rare, chronic disease causing the body to produce excess red blood cells.

_ Cause: Gene mutation, but the cause of the mutation is unknown.

_ Incidence: Extremely rare. There are estimated to be five new cases per every one million people each year. More common among adults over 60 and more prevalent among men.

_ Symptoms: Pressure or fullness on the left side of the abdomen due to enlargement of the spleen, headache, double vision, itching all over, reddened face, weakness, dizziness, and unexplained weight loss.

_ Treatment: Phlebotomy, medicine, or biological therapy.

SOURCE: National Institutes of Health, http://www.nih.gov/