2008.10.08 – Government’s best care- Info to fight cancer cluster


October 8, 2008

Government’s best care: Info to fight cancer cluster

U.S. SEN. ARLEN Specter’s visit to Hazle Township on Monday offers some assurance that, at last, the government will aggressively look for the cause of a mysterious cancer cluster that has some area residents on edge.

Even so, don’t count on a speedy answer.

Research could take years, assuming that federal funding is made available to get it started, and even then the results might be inconclusive as to why a rare bone marrow disorder appears more prevalent among people living in a zone stretching between Hazleton and Tamaqua.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) this summer released findings of a two-year study that showed a high concentration of polycythemia vera, commonly called P-Vera, in a 15-mile radius that includes sections of Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties. It identified 33 cases of the disorder characterized by an overproduction of red blood cells.

Typically one in about 100,000 people is expected to develop P-Vera. A Weatherly physician stated as many as 114 cases have been confirmed in the area, but for various reasons not all were included in the study.

Specter, the Philadelphia Republican who has coped with Hodgkin’s disease, called for a “battle plan” to be drawn by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health and ATSDR. He also has requested that Congress approve $262,000 for Drexel University to begin a study of the cluster, searching for plausible explanations.

Many people want to pin the cancer cluster on an environmental problem, noting that the zone includes federal Superfund sites as well as a power plant fueled by waste coal. That’s speculation and should be treated as such pending results of scientific research.

In the meantime, residents within the affected region deserve periodic updates. Specter and others at the forefront of this investigation should take steps to quell rumors and make sure the community has easy access to the latest medical facts.

P-Vera, which thickens the blood and can result in strokes or heart attacks, “occurs most often in older adults” and “usually develops very slowly,” according to information distributed on the Mayo Clinic’s Web site. There is no cure. “But, with proper medical care,” it states, “many people with polycythemia vera experience few problems related to the disease.”

Area residents already are accustomed to hearing that Luzerne County’s population experiences higher rates of certain cancers – such as lung, stomach and colon – than their counterparts across the commonwealth. Those rates are largely attributed to unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as overeating and smoking.

Bottom line: Your health is mostly in your hands, not the government’s.