2008.08.26 – Feds confirm cancer cluster


Feds confirm cancer cluster from Tamaqua to Hazleton
Region has Superfund sites, power plant fired by waste coal.

By Michael Rubinkam
Of The Associated Press
August 26, 2008

Nearly a year after federal epidemiologists first sounded the alarm over a cluster of rare blood cancers in northeastern Pennsylvania, their research has zeroed in on a region that’s home to several Superfund sites as well as a power plant fired by waste coal.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said Monday it confirmed an elevated number of cases of polycythemia vera, or PV, in a 20-mile stretch between Hazleton and Tamaqua.

It remains the first and only cluster of PV ever recorded in the United States, though the condition only became reportable to state cancer registries in 2001 and officials said it’s statistically likely there are others.

Residents in the affected ZIP codes were four times as likely to suffer from PV as those living in outlying areas, the government said.

”Finally they made the statement that there is a problem here,” said Merle Wertman, who has the disease and has lived in Tamaqua for 34 years. ”On my block alone, there are 14 people with cancer.”

Researchers cautioned, though, that their investigation was not designed to uncover an environmental link to PV, a cancer that results in the overproduction of red blood cells and can lead to heart attack or stroke. PV’s cause is unknown.

”We don’t want to give the message that there are no connections,” said U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances researcher Vince Seaman. ”We just don’t have the data.”

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. Other Superfund sites dot the area, too, along with a power plant that burns waste coal that some residents also suspect has caused health problems.

”A lot of stuff was dumped into the ground, and we want to make sure it’s managed properly,” said Charles Martienssen, a member of Citizen Advocates United to Safeguard the Environment.

Researchers said they confirmed 33 cases of PV in Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties. That was a slightly lower number than they reported last October, at the conclusion of their preliminary investigation into the cluster.

The federal toxic substances agency revealed its latest findings at a community meeting in Hazleton on Monday night.

”Basically, they told us what they told us last year — that they’re going to do more testing,” said Linda Wertman, Merle Wertman’s wife. ”I just hope they do it before anyone else dies.”

(Schuylkill’s cancer death rate for 1999 through 2002 was slightly higher than the state average.)

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.)

”I am a fighter, and I won’t give up, but I want to make sure nothing like this ever happens again,” said Edith Benjamin, who has the illness and lived in McAdoo for 40 years.

Also Monday, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter announced that the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $262,000 for a planned Drexel University investigation into the cluster. The funding has yet to clear the full Senate.

Ashley Kosciolek, a freelance writer for The Morning Call, contributed to this story.