2007.10.25 – Federal report finds no cancer-toxin link, but elevated numbers outrage residents


Federal report finds no cancer-toxin link, but elevated numbers outrage residents

HAZLETON — Schuylkill and Luzerne counties are sicker than they should be, but experts aren’t yet sure why.

Published: Thursday, October 25, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

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HAZLETON — Schuylkill and Luzerne counties are sicker than they should be, but experts aren’t yet sure why.

A federal investigation launched last fall has confirmed 38 cases of a rare cancer in eastern Schuylkill and northern Luzerne counties where only 25 should have been found — 52 percent higher than expected — over the last five years.

The officials, however, said they found no link between environmental factors and polycythemia vera.

More than 130 residents — many angry at the information announced — attended the presentation Wednesday by federal and state officials at Genetti’s Best Western Hotel and Motor Lodge, Hazleton. Local environmental activists had argued that the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site along Route 309 north of Tamaqua might be one possible cause of locally elevated numbers of the cancer.

“This is an insult. This is an outrage,” said West Penn Township physician Peter Baddick, who believes the McAdoo Associates site may be responsible and may have contaminated the local Still Creek Reservoir, which supplies water to much of the Tamaqua Area.

“There’s no conspiracy to hide any information,” said Steve Dearwent, chief of investigations branch, Division of Health Studies for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Health officials say the cause of polycythemia vera, a bone marrow cancer producing an increase in red blood cells, remains unknown and more research is needed.

Geographic specifics provided by officials included an elevated rate in the Tamaqua area, an area in western Schuylkill County and northern Lu-zerne County.

“Quite honestly, the benchmark is fuzzy,” Dearwent said, referring to determining how elevated the number of cases is.

Before its closure by federal officials in 1979 for a variety of environmental issues, the McAdoo Associates site, a little more than a mile north of Ben Titus Road, operated as an industrial recycler, extracting metals from waste sludge.

In 1981 and 1982, federal authorities removed 6,790 drums of hazardous waste from the property and critics and community leaders allege other hazardous wastes were also dumped into underground mine workings there.

During the presentations, residents remained upset.

“When are we going to find the answers instead of beating around the bush?” said Ricky Johnson, who lives near the Still Creek Reservoir and is battling prostate cancer.

His wife, Rosanne, said she could identify at least 13 different cases of cancer on Washington Street in Tamaqua where the couple had lived before, including testicular, prostate, breast and bone cancer and leukemia.

“It boils down to one thing: They are never going to admit anything,” said Rosanne, adding she was disappointed the study looked at only one type of cancer.

Tamaqua Mayor Christian P. Morrison said he was pleased to at least see officials concede there was a problem in his community.

Betty Kester, 79, a Rush Township resident living across the street from the Still Creek Reservoir and diagnosed with the disease in 2002 or 2003, said she, too, was dissatisfied.

“They’re not talking at all about what’s happening with the water,” said Kester, whose husband, Lester, was diagnosed with the disease in 2001.

The Tamaqua Area Water Authority has repeatedly said there is no proof of any contamination of the reservoir.

Of a total of 97 cases in the state cancer registry, Dearwent said only 40 percent — or 38 individuals — had participated in the study and 34 individuals not in the registry also participated.

Dearwent said 60 percent of those in the registry had either died, refused to participated or could not be located.

However, officials say they are hesitant about releasing specific numbers in small tract and zip code areas due to patient confidentiality.

Dearwent also said the agency did not wish to overwhelm residents with data and that more studies would be done.