2007.12.07 – Feds hedge on environmental link to Pennsylvania illnesses
Feds hedge on environmental link to Pennsylvania illnesses
12/7/2007, 4:32 p.m. ET
By MIKE STOBBE and MICHAEL RUBINKAM
The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — Officials abruptly backpedaled Friday on a federally funded health study that suggests an environmental link to a cluster of rare blood cancer cases in northeastern Pennsylvania, saying an abstract that made the claim was mistakenly released to the public.
The research is to be presented Monday at a medical conference in Atlanta. An abstract released in advance of the meeting said there is “significant evidence” that something in the environment caused an unusually large number of cases of polycythemia (pah-lee-sy-THEE’-mee-ah) vera in Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties.
The abstract, which was submitted to the American Society of Hematology, also said that people who had lived within 13 miles of a former toxic waste dump in northern Schuylkill County developed the blood cancer at a rate 4.5 times higher than people living in other parts of the three counties.
Steve Dearwent, a government epidemiologist, said Friday that the abstract was written early in the summer and that subsequent analysis of the data did not support the conclusion of an environmental link — although he added that still is a possibility. He said the abstract should have been revised before it was submitted.
“We’re going to have to retract the abstract to correct the record because it is erroneous information,” said Dearwent, chief of health investigations for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal agency that oversaw the study. “It was preliminary and hadn’t been vetted, and unfortunately it got submitted unbeknownst to most people here.”
Dearwent said additional research might prove an environmental link. And the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Ronald Hoffman of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said Friday that the data does in fact point to something in the environment.
“Based upon the data, there’s significant concern that there is something in the environment leading to the development of polycythemia vera in that area. The nature of what’s causing it is unknown at the moment and is going to require further study,” he said.
Dante Picciano, a lawyer and geneticist who is active in local environmental issues, said the data indicate a much larger problem than polycythemia vera. He wants study of a wide range of cancers and other diseases in the region.
“This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s inconceivable that you’re going to have environmental exposures cause an increase in (only) one type of rare cancer,” he said.
Polycythemia vera, classified as a cancer, can lead to heart attack or stroke. About 1 case of polycythemia vera occurs each year in every 100,000 Americans. The cause is unknown.
Local activists have raised suspicions about McAdoo Associates, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where a hazardous waste recycling business operated from 1975 to 1979 and accepted hundreds of thousands of gallons of paint sludge, waste oils, used solvents, PCBs, cyanide, pesticides and many other known or suspected carcinogens.
Environmental officials shut down the site in 1979, and it was later placed on the federal Superfund list and cleaned up.
Residents fear that chemicals leached into the region’s water supplies and polluted private wells and public reservoirs. State and federal environmental officials have said for years that McAdoo Associates does not pose a health threat.
Activists have also raised concerns about five power plants in Schuylkill County fueled by waste coal and about the practice of filling abandoned coal mines with ash created by coal-burning power plants.
In October, officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances confirmed 38 cases of polycythemia vera in the region and said the rate was elevated.
At the time, federal officials said there was no proof of an environmental cause, and that cases were scattered throughout the area in no predictable pattern — making the assertions in the abstract surprising.
The abstract, which surfaced a few weeks ago, said the geographical location of the cases “strongly suggests” an environmental link to polycythemia vera.
Dearwent said Friday that the early analysis on which the abstract was based was faulty because it incorrectly assumed that residents with polycythemia vera had lived near the Superfund site for the entire 25 years of the study period, when in fact some had moved around. That invalidated the assertion that people living near the Superfund site were at 4.5 times great risk, he said.
Hoffman said the abstract’s count of confirmed cases near McAdoo Associates will not be included in the presentation to be made Monday. Biostatisticians wanted more time to analyze data and make sure it is correct, he said.
Dr. Stephen Ostroff, lead epidemiologist at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said the abstract is “not an accurate representation of what the current thinking is.”