2008.10.07 – Coal region blood-disease cluster ID'd

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Coal region blood-disease cluster ID’d
Sen. Specter wants experts to find the cause quickly.

By John J. Moser
Of The Morning Call
October 7, 2008

It took officials five years to determine there was, indeed, a cluster of cases of a rare blood cancer in a 20-mile swath of Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties from Tamaqua to Hazleton.

And now that the incidents of polycythemia vera, or PV, have been identified, officials said Monday it may take five more years to find out what’s causing it.

But U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., gathered local, state and federal officials here to say that’s not good enough, and to press for more information faster.

”We’ve been languishing,” Specter said, telling representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the state Health Department to move ahead with studies on causes and effects of the disease, and promising to find funding for it after the fact.

”Today we advanced the ball significantly,” he said. But ”I’m not satisfied. I want more aggressive action.”

Ruth Kester Husky said people afflicted with the disease may not have five more years to wait for an answer. Husky said both her parents, Betty and Lester Kester of Tamaqua, died this year, five years after both were diagnosed with the disease.

”This has to start moving,” Husky said.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in August said it had confirmed 33 cases of PV — four times the expected number — in a 20-mile stretch.

It’s the only PV cluster ever recorded in the United States, but the disease only became reportable to state cancer registries in 2001, and little is known about the malady, in which overproduction of red blood cells can lead to heart attack or stroke. So other clusters are likely to exist, officials said.

That’s part of what still must be studied, said Dr. Tom Sinks, deputy director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

He said federal officials hope to look at PV rates in West Virginia, where some of the same conditions as in northeastern Pennsylvania exist: coal mining and mine drainage and electric plants that burn waste coal.

Community activists have cited both as suspected causes of area PV cases, as well as the former McAdoo Associates, a metal reclamation/incineration facility in Kline Township, Schuylkill County, closed by the state in 1979 where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says hundreds of thousands of gallons of paint sludge, waste oils, solvents, pesticides and other carcinogens were dumped.

It’s now a federal Superfund site, and there are others in the area.

Sinks also said studies are needed to make sure the PV cases ”that are registered are real cases,” and CDC wants to do controlled studies to look at commonalities in those afflicted.

”There’s more we don’t know about this disease than we do know,” he said.

Dr. Peter Baddick, a local internist who was among the first to sound the alarm about PV, said other cancer types in the area — some with known environmental causes — also must be studied. ”If everyone’s afraid of that, we’ll never accomplish anything,” Baddick said.

Merle Wertman, who has lived in Tamaqua 34 years and was diagnosed with PV in 2003, agreed. He said people in 40 homes on Tamaqua’s Washington Street have 13 kinds of cancer. ”I have grandchildren,” Wertman said. ”I don’t want to see them get it.”

Specter said he wants a study to happen now. ”What I would categorize as an emergency here is taking a lot of time,” he said. ”You’ve got a community here that is very much on edge.”

Specter said the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $262,000 for a planned Drexel University investigation into the cluster, but appropriations bills have not been approved, delaying the funds. But he said the CDC and state Health Department are well funded, and promised to retroactively find funds for whatever studies are done.

Specter asked for an immediate ”battle plan” to look at what research is needed, how to find causes, and how much it will cost. He said common sense points to an environmental cause, ”but that isn’t sufficiently scientific.”

A CDC report on recommendations and possible follow-up activities in the area cases may be released this week, officials said.

john.moser@mcall.com
610-379-3220

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