2008.08.21 – Feds to release findings on cancer cluster

Feds to release findings on cancer cluster

The mystery of why a rare blood cancer struck people at the intersection of Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties might persist even after a federal agency releases its final findings on Monday.

Published: Thursday, August 21, 2008 4:46 AM EDT

The mystery of why a rare blood cancer struck people at the intersection of Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties might persist even after a federal agency releases its final findings on Monday.

Even when scheduling a public meeting in Hazleton to discuss its two-year investigation, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry indicated that questions remain.

“The federal public health agency will also outline areas for future research,” according to a news release that the agency issued to announce the meeting, set for 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at Genetti Best Western Genetti Inn and Suites.

During its study, the agency verified that more people than expected in the tri-county area developed polycythemia vera, a cancer in which too many red blood cells are produced.

With their blood thickened, patients are more susceptible to strokes, heart attacks and life-threatening clots.

Polycythemia vera — or PV — is rare. One in 100,000 people are expected to develop it. Yet four years ago, three people living close to each other on Ben Titus Road in Rush Township came down with the disease.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health investigated, but decided it needed help from the federal agency.

The agency verified that more than 30 people in the three counties had PV. A blood test confirmed that 33 of 64 people sampled had the disease, the agency said on its Web site. A news release issued before the previous public meeting in October 2007 said the blood test confirmed 38 cases.

This year, the agency sought to identify U.S. Census tracts and zip codes with the highest rates of the disease, the Web Site said.

“I believe it should be somewhat more of a confirmation of the 13-mile hot zone that exists around Ben Titus Road and the McAdoo Associates Superfund area,” Joseph Murphy, a Hometown resident, who led the push to study the outbreaks.

At McAdoo Associates, about a mile from homes of some patients, hazardous wastes were incinerated and dumped into mines until the state closed the business in 1979.

Murphy and other residents suggest the site might explain the cases of PV.

“The question that came up again and again and again at some of the previous meetings is, ‘Do you have some ideas as to the cause?’” state Rep. David Argall, R-124, said.

PV, however, has no known cause, and the agency said in October 2007 that it found no link between environmental factors and the disease. The people with the disease didn’t share sources of drinking water, the agency said.

An abstract of a report released just before a conference of the American Society of Hematology in December 2007 said significant evidence linked PV cases to the environment. But the agency later said that the abstract was written based on preliminary analysis later shown to be wrong, and an amended version of the report actually was presented at the conference.

In the future, researchers might continue to search for the cause of PV in the three counties, especially around McAdoo Associates, Murphy said.

“What a lot of folks are looking for is an independent, unbiased research into is there an environmental component for PV, and can we do anything about it?” Murphy said.

Argall said several colleges have been sent letters asking them to further the research, by none have committed.

Dr. Peter Baddick of West Penn Township pressed for investigation of the PV cases and said on Wednesday that incidences of other cancers in the three counties merit study as well.

PV only has been reported to cancer registries since 2001.

“It’s kind of like a new disease in its infancy of being understood by the medical community,” said Baddick, who added that one patient on Ben Titus Road died since the last public meeting.

Baddick thinks PV cases represent a fraction of the problem and called for study of cancers that are better understood.

In 2004, the state Health Department found 24,867 cases of various cancers in 80 zip codes of Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties.

Maps attached to the end of the study show the incidence rates in Hazleton, for example, were significantly higher than the state rate for total cancers and for leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung and colorectal cancers.