2008.08.26 – 33 PV cases confirmed


33 PV cases confirmed

meeting_20080826Area residents listen Monday during a meeting in Genetti’s Best Western regarding a cluster of rare polycythemia vera cancer in Carbon, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties.

Published: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 4:23 AM EDT

HAZLETON — The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on Monday confirmed something that residents of the intersections of Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties have thought for years — an unusually high number of people there are suffering from a rare blood cancer.

At a public meeting in Genetti’s Best Western Hotel, Hazle Township, the ATSDR released the final results of a two-year study that confirmed a statistically significant number of polycythemia vera cancer diagnoses in the area surrounding Ben Titus Road between Tamaqua and McAdoo. Residents in the affected ZIP codes were four times as likely to suffer from PV as residents living in outlying areas, according to the government.

Thirty-three cases of the cancer have been clinically confirmed.

Polycythemia vera is a rare bone marrow disorder that results in overproduction of red blood cells. It is classified as a cancer because stem cells in the marrow do not respond to the normal signal to stop producing red blood cells.

In October 2006, at the request of the state Department of Health, ATSDR began a study into the number of PV cases reported in the tri-county area. The study, which confirmed a statistically significant cluster of diagnoses, also identified two smaller — but still statistically significant — PV cancer cluster areas, one south of Frackville in Schuylkill County and the other near Jim Thorpe in Carbon County.

The 33 confirmed cases remains the first and only cluster of PV ever recorded in the United States. That was a slightly lower number than they reported last October, at the conclusion of their preliminary investigation into the cluster.

Vince Seaman, research toxicologist with the ATSDR in Atlanta, said the study revealed “more than enough cases to call it statistically significant.”

However, Seaman said, “We don’t want to give the message that there are no connections (to local environmental issues). We just don’t have the data.”

The report found three environmental similarities in common in the cluster areas: hazardous waste sites, air pollution and coal mining operations.

Some residents blame their illnesses on a recycler called McAdoo Associates that 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.

However, the study could not pinpoint which, if any, of the environmental commonalities might influence PV.

“We are not ruling anything out here. Now that we’ve got the what we need to get to the why,” Seaman said.

On the heels of the ATSDR report, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter announced that the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $262,000 for the Drexel University School of Public Health of Philadelphia to investigate the northeastern Pennsylvania PV cancer cluster. The funding has not yet cleared full Senate.

Exploration of the possible environmental link will commence with the Drexel study.

Researchers said they found that Pennsylvania does not accurately report the number of PV cases statewide. That’s because the criteria for diagnosing the illness has changed, and because PV is only reported by hospitals. (Not all PV patients are hospitalized.)

Seaman said inaccurate PV reporting is likely a problem in other states.

According to ATSDR, medical research has discovered that a mutation in a gene called JAK2 occurred in most PV patients. The discovery led scientists to search for the cause of the mutation in hopes of finding the cause of PV.

The ATSDR report recommends four steps in future research: rigorous risk factor studies, long-term clinical evaluation of patients, assessment of genetic markers for PV and environmental exposures, and evaluate other bone marrow cell disorders.

“I assure you, this is not the end. This is the middle of solving the puzzle,” Seaman said.

Joseph Murphy, a Tamaqua area resident and environmental advocate, said he realizes the study is a work in progress.

“I wish they could have been more specific with the type of research and science that will commence at Drexel University to get the answers we need,” he said. “But this is a step in the right direction.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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