By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief, shessinger@republicanherald.com
The REPUBLICAN & Herald, © 2007

January 2, 2007

Federal health officials have examined more than 30 people from the region diagnosed with the rare blood disease polycythemia vera and are seeking more participants in their investigation.

Lora Werner, senior regional representative for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said last week about 35 residents had been interviewed and some also received voluntary blood tests.

“It’s definitely ongoing,” said Werner, who added that two more interviews were scheduled for the next few weeks.

However, Werner said health officials have also nearly exhausted a list of about 80 possible victims supplied by local physicians and concerned members of the community, who may also have been diagnosed with the disease.

“We’re at the point where we’ve interviewed everyone where we had contact information and who agreed to be interviewed,” Werner said.

She said the investigation has included detailed interviews with those suffering from the malignancy focusing on where they worked and lived to attempt to isolate possible environmental exposures.

Interviews in some cases also included blood tests for those who wished to participate in an effort to identify a genetic marker common to Polycythemia Vera patients.

Werner said federal officials are hopeful they may still receive more contacts from residents or physicians in a tri-county area including Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties.

Concern over the rare blood disease, from a family of hematological or bloodborne illnesses that health officials says also includes leukemia, began in June 2004 when an environmental group reported an alleged cluster of cases in eastern SchuylkillCounty.

The Carbon County Groundwater Guardians presented information at the time suggesting that three people and possibly a fourth who reside along Ben Titus Road in rural Rush Township had contracted the affliction. The group urged an investigation.

The road borders the northern bank of the Still Creek Reservoir, which supplies customers in Tamaqua and surrounding communities with drinking water and is in close proximity to the former McAdoo Associates, a hazardous area that had once been a Superfund site.

Between 1978 and 1979, the property contained an estimated 7,000 drums and six above-ground tanks with volatile organic compounds, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The road and the reservoir are also in close proximity to a local cogeneration plant and the Big Gorilla stripping pit, where substantial amounts of coal combustion ash have been applied over the years in a controversial reclamation project.

A Web site, hometownhazards.com, maintained by Raleigh, N.C.-based freelance writer and former Hometown resident Sue Sturgis, suggests all these sources and perhaps others may be tied to what residents say is an elevated level of cancer and other health problems.

Pennsylvania Department of Health studies in 2004 and again in 2006 concluded cancer rates in the region were not unusually high, but concerned residents insisted the department had skewed the numbers.

Then in late September, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry met with local physicians to discuss discrepancies between state records and local reports of incidents of polycythemia vera and other illnesses.

In early October, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, used a press conference, held near the fencing that surrounds the former McAdoo Associates site just off Route 309 in Kline Township, to urge further investigation.

Concerned Hometown resident Joseph Murphy, who has helped supply data on area health problems, said he is hopeful the effort will lead to other unanswered questions about environmental contamination locally and the health problems it has caused.

“So, we’ll just have to see where this leads us,” Murphy said Thursday.