2007.10.29 – Agency must give more information


Agency must give more information

Few words in the English language frighten like “cancer.”

Published: Monday, October 29, 2007 3:00 AM EDT
Few words in the English language frighten like “cancer.”

We use this word, which means “crab” in Latin, to describe not one, but a whole family of diseases with the common feature of uncontrolled cellular growth.

It is always bad news. Almost all cancers require long, arduous medical treatment. Some types can be cured. The majority require lifelong monitoring and can seriously compromise one’s health. Several of them kill the patient, offering little hope of escape.

When dealing with cancer, it is not a time for name calling. It is not a time for wild goose chases for a scapegoat.

Last Wednesday, federal officials announced the results of a study of polycythemia vera, a disease that causes excessive production of red blood cells.

This nasty illness makes its victims susceptible to strokes and other vascular problems and therefore shortens the average lifespan, although it doesn’t kill outright.

We have a higher than average incidence of this disease in the coal region.

There are 38 cases at various locations in Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties. In other places with an equal population, there would be 25 cases.

Officials with the Federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry said they found nothing linking the higher incidence of the disease with a former industrial site, McAdoo Associates, which is under federal management due to various environmental problems.

The agency says its data does not show a correlation between the incidence of polycythemia vera and the Superfund site.

This conclusion demands further research. The agency has one more bit of information it needs to release before people can rest assured this higher incidence of polycythemia vera has nothing to do with the Superfund site or contamination of the ground water near Tamauqa.

The agency distributed a map at the Wednesday press conference. It shows the three counties and indicates 24 sites where polycythemia vera was found.

It is unfortunate the map does not tell us how many cases are found at each site. If there were one case in each site, there would be nothing to worry about. That would be about the right number of cases occurring randomly in a population of the size in question.

However, the agency said there were 38 cases found. That means some sites have more than one case. If most sites are one or two cases, there is no reason to focus on one area over another. Yet, what if most of these sites have only one case and the two sites near the Superfund site have several apiece?

The federal officials need to tell us how many cases there are at each site and stop hiding behind “patient confidentiality.”

Then, if it turns out the 38 cases are more or less evenly divided among the 24 sites, we can turn to the larger question of why there are so many cases in the coal region in general.

It is telling that the sites in Schuylkill County seem to cluster around Minersville, Ashland and Tremont, all areas associated with mining.

Is there something in the environment here caused by mining? Or, is there something in the population itself, poor health habits, for example?

This issue needs to be resolved. The press conference last week must not be allowed to become the final chapter in the story.