2007.12.08 – Cancer conflict
BY SHAWN A. HESSINGER
Officials abruptly backpedaled on a federally funded health study that suggests an environmental link to a cluster of the disease in northeastern Pennsylvania, saying an abstract that made the claim was mistakenly released to the public.
“The bottom line is that the abstract you’re reading conflicts with the information we released in October,” said Steve Dearwent, chief of the investigations branch, Division of Health Studies for the Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The report for an upcoming presentation at a national medical conference Monday says residents living within 13 miles of the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site, Kline Township, had a 4 1/2 times greater likelihood of developing polycythemia vera than others during the 15 years that include the site’s operation and cleanup.
The research is to the 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 vera in Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties.
However, Dearwent said Friday the abstract prepared for the American Society of Hematology was assembled in August or September before data had been further reviewed by senior ATSDR officials and representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
During the initial complication of data, Dearwent said investigators may have “injected bias” into the report by placing too much significance on resident with the disease who had lived within close proximity to McAdoo Associates without considering that many had lived in upper to five or six locations as well.
However, federal officials do not deny that 18 out of 38 confirmed cases of the illness, or 49 percent, occurred in residents who lived witht 13 miles of the former Superfund site between 1970 and 1995.
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 the area. The nature of what’s causing it is unknown at the moment and is going to require further study,” he said.
At an Oct. 24 meeting in Hazleton, data released by the agency showed elevated levels of the rare blood disease, but was not specific about where cases were concentrated and made no link with the environment. Federal officials defended their lack of ability to link the illness to environmental factors to the disgust of an angry crowd of more than 130 people.
U.S. Rep. Tim Holden admitted some confusing over contradictory results between the October meeting and the latest report.
“Don’t ask me to answer any questions because I don’t know any more than you,” Holden said Friday.
He said he is working with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s office in an effort to set up a meeting with federal health officials to discuss the seemingly contradictory data.
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, echoed Holden’s concern.
“We definitely are well aware of the problem and we are working with Sen. Specter’s office. We’re reaching out to local environmental and medical people to see what we can do,” Barkoff said.
Specter’s office forwarded a copy of a letter from Specter, Casey and Holden expressing concern over the release of the abstract and urging officials to make clarificiations.
Specter had called for the intial investigation by the ATSDR.
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 a 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 cancer, can lead to heart attack or stroke. About one case of polycythemia vera occurs each year in every 100,000 Americans. The cause is unknown.
Local activists have raised suspicions about McAdoo Associates, 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 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.