2008.10.07 – Specter seeks PV battle plan


Specter seeks PV battle plan

Published: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 4:17 AM EDT

HAZLETON — U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter knows what it’s like to have cancer and endure chemotherapy.

Now, the Pennsylvania Republican is fighting for residents of the area where Carbon, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties meet and where a federal health agency has confirmed an unusually high incidence of a rare cancer called polycythemia vera.

Specter on Monday met with about 20 citizens, doctors and public officials involved with the PV cancer cluster in the tri-county area.

He called the meeting as a follow-up to a report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which concluded a two-year study in August that confirmed a statistically significant number of PV cancer diagnoses in an area surrounding Ben Titus Road between Tamaqua and McAdoo, where 33 cases of the rare cancer have been clinically confirmed.

The study also identified two smaller — but still statistically significant — PV cancer cluster areas, one south of Frackville in Schuylkill County and one near Jim Thorpe in Carbon County.

The purpose of Monday’s meeting, held at Genetti Best Western Inn and Suites, Hazle Township, Specter said, was to get answers, and to map out a PV cancer cluster battle plan.

“I want to get a handle on this and develop an action plan to move ahead with a sense of urgency,” he said.

The battle plan was hammered out with Specter firing a staccato of questions at the public health officials in attendance: Where do we stand right now? What must be accomplished next? What do we need to accomplish these things? How long will it take to get it done? What kind of funding is needed?

Dr. Paul Roda of the Geisinger Hazleton Cancer Center called the agency’s report a “major first step” in unraveling the PV cluster mystery.

Roda explained: “Until we had that report, we didn’t have a piece of paper to take into your office or Senator (James J.) Rhoades’ (R-29) office to prove that we have a problem here. Last year we didn’t have proof that we have a problem. Now we have proof. That is a major first step.”

Dr. Steve Ostroff of the state Department of Health added, “Now that we know more about the ‘what,’ we need to try to determine the ‘how and the why.’ ”

At the time of the federal report in August, Specter announced that the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved $262,000 in the 2009 budget for a Drexel University School of Public Health of Philadelphia investigation into the cancer cluster.

On Monday, Specter said he is not content to simply wait for next year’s appropriation.

“We have an appropriation in the pipeline. But the people in this room don’t want to wait and neither do I. I want to move ahead early,” Specter said, adding that funding may be immediately available through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health, and from sources on the state level as well.

“I can talk to (Gov. Ed) Rendell about this. I’m sure we can get something done,” Specter said.

With the federal report as a launchpad, the officials verbalized a bullet list of “next steps,” including continuing a study to compare similar health issues in other anthracite mining areas such as West Virginia, an investigation of ground contaminants in the local cluster area, information and resource sharing among all agencies involved, and public input.

Roda will put the battle plan in writing and deliver it to Specter’s office by the end of the week.

“We have a community here that is very much on edge. I can see it on the faces of the men and women gathered here,” Specter said.

In addition to Roda and Ostroff, public health officials in attendance included Vince Seaman and Lora Singemann Werner of the ATSDR; Brent Ennis of the state Department of Health; Michael Huff, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health; Dr. Tom Sinks, deputy director of the National Center for Environmental Health at ATSDR; and Tamaqua-area physician, Peter Baddick.

Cancer-stricken citizens from the cluster area in attendance included: Merle Wertman, Debra Trently, John Kolbush and Bill Hinkle.

Ruth Kester Husky, whose parents lived on Ben Titus Road and both died of PV, also attended along with local environmental health advocates Joe Murphy and Cathy Miorelli; Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta; and, in the audience, representatives of other elected public officials.

Kester Husky said both of her parents were diagnosed with the cancer in 2003, and both passed away five years later.

Debra Trently of Old Cranberry was recently diagnosed with PV.

“I want to live more than five more years,” Trently told the gathering of health officials.

Specter said, “I know what its like to have Hodgkin’s cancer and go through chemotherapy.”

The senator battled Stage IVB Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer in 2005. He underwent nearly five months of chemotherapy while maintaining his Senatorial duties.

In April, Specter announced he was suffering from a recurrence of the disease and he again underwent chemotherapy.