2007.10.26 – Toxin link not ruled out


Toxin link not ruled out

A search into the cause of a rare blood cancer would be simpler if researchers knew what to look for.

Published: Friday, October 26, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

A search into the cause of a rare blood cancer would be simpler if researchers knew what to look for.

The lead investigator of a federal study, who confirmed 38 cases of polycythemia vera Wednesday in Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties, said the research had not ruled out environmental factors as a cause for the disease.

“We did not find any environmental links to the PV (polycythemia vera) cases we interviewed. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t any — we just didn’t see anything with the information we collected,” Vince Seaman, a toxicologist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, said via e-mail Thursday.

He also said researchers will be hampered by the fact that no known cause of the illness has been determined.

Still, some activists have continued to blame a former Superfund site and an adjacent reservoir they believe is contaminated.

Jim Leber, Elizabethtown, was a mine inspector for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, now the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, back in 1976 when he became aware of the McAdoo Associates Superfund site.

At the time, McAdoo Associates was licensed as a metal reclamation and incineration facility on an 8-acre former mining site in Kline Township, just off Route 309, south of McAdoo.

Leber was acquainted with the McAdoo Associates site because it was adjacent to a permitted mine tract that was part of his mine inspection territory for the state.

Leber said he first became concerned when he witnessed the incinerator on the site releasing clouds of black smoke from a 50- to 60-foot-high stack that did not appear to have appropriate pollution controls.

He said his complaints to the department’s air-quality division went nowhere.

“I was told the plant itself was licensed, it was inspected and it was operating within regulations,” he said.

However, six months later, Leber observed that the ground on the site had become soaked with an odorous substance that was leaching onto the permitted mine area he was assigned to inspect.

Leber said he also discovered that trucks entering the site with a variety of volatile organical chemicals and other wastes were emptying their loads into 15,000-gallon tanks, on which large spigots had been open to allow the materials to spill out onto the ground.

The waste was not only washing into the nearby Little Schuylkill River but also into an open shaft leading to deep-mine workings beneath the site, Leber said.

“The chemicals would have to go into the mine pool because there’s no other place for it to go,” he said.

This time he complained to the water quality division of the DER.

He believes his vocal complaints earned him a transfer to Luzerne County and away from any further involvement with McAdoo Associates.

The state finally revoked the company’s permit to operate in 1979, according to the EPA.

After a federally mandated cleanup of the site, including removal of contaminated soil and 7,000 drums of chemicals from the site in the early 1980s, the property was removed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List of most contaminated sites in 2001, said David Sternberg, a spokesman for EPA Region III headquarters in Philadelphia.

Though he acknowledges contaminants in groundwater beneath the property may still exist, Sternberg said the federal agency believes a clay cap and drainage ditches around the site have prevented any further water from entering to further leach pollutants.

“EPA is committed to making sure its remedy for McAdoo Associates site remains protective of human health,” he added.

Sternberg also reiterated that no evidence connects polycythemia vera to any Superfund site.

Despite reassurances, a West Penn Township physician thinks some of the pollutants buried under McAdoo Associates continue to seep through the earth and into the wells of residents like Lester and Betty Kester, who were among the first publicly reported diagnosed with polycythemia vera.

At a meeting to release the federal agency’s study on incidence of the disease Wednesday, Betty Kester, now using to a wheelchair, complained the investigation had turned up nothing on the possible environmental factors contributing to the disease.

However, Dr. Peter Baddick, who has made the possible connection between the Superfund site and the disease a personal crusade, believes four fish with tumors, all of which he says were caught in the Still Creek Reservoir supplying customers in Tamaqua, West Penn, Rush and Schuylkill townships may prove a connection.

The reservoir theory may explain how Merle Wertman and others in Tamaqua borough became ill miles away from McAdoo Associates and the contaminated mine working upon which it rests.

Wertman, 62, says he was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, which causes symptoms like weakness, fatigue and dizziness, among other symptoms, in 2003.

He must get phlebotomies once a month to remove blood that has become “thick as molasses” with overproduction of red blood cells.

“Some days I feel like I was hit by a truck,” Wertman says, adding that the disease has robbed him of the ability to play with his grandchildren or indulge his passions of hunting and fishing.

Brian Connely, chairman of the Tamaqua Area Water Authority, says officials are willing to go further with testing of the reservoir but have already spent $20,000, $15,000 of which was supplied by legislators state Rep. David G. Argall, R-124, and state Sen. James J. Rhoades, R-29, and are tapped out.

“Nobody’s hiding anything. Nobody’s fudging any numbers,” Connely said, but insisted over a year of testing has revealed nothing except a single sample in which lead levels exceeded drinking water samples by five time the acceptable level. The level has not been seen since and is being disregarded as an anomaly.

Incidence of the disease in western Schuylkill and northern Luzerne Counties can probably not be explained by an eastern Schuylkill County Superfund site.