2009.03.06 – Specter would fund study of cancer cluster

Posted on Fri, Mar. 6, 2009

Specter would fund study of cancer cluster

By Amy Worden
Inquirer Staff Writer

Scientists would receive $5.5 million to study a first-of-its-kind cancer cluster in Northeastern Pennsylvania under a provision inserted by Sen. Arlen Specter in the federal spending bill moving through Congress.

The cluster is potentially linked to environmental hazards.

Under the $410 billion federal spending bill moving through Congress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive $5 million to study cases of polycythemia vera (PV), a rare blood cancer that turned up in unusually high numbers in an area 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, said Specter (R., Pa.).

In addition, the Drexel University School of Public Health would receive $499,000 to conduct a “case control study” to look at individuals with the disease and compare them with the general population.

Specter, in an interview last night, said the disorder, which studies have shown may be linked to Superfund sites and a waste-coal-fired power plant, “threatens an entire community.”

“People in that area are very concerned about the problem,” said Specter. “They’re entitled to the best answers science can give them.”

Specter, a cancer survivor and champion of medical research, has spent 21/2 years fighting for federal funding to study PV cases around McAdoo, Schuylkill County, in a coal-mining region near the border of Carbon and Luzerne Counties.

The state Health Department identified at least 38 confirmed cases of PV among people who lived near one of several U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites in the McAdoo area, where hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic waste were illegally dumped in the 1970s.

Stephen Ostroff, director of the state Bureau of Epidemiology, said there could be more cases of PV that were not known because they were not reported or because diagnostics were not as reliable years ago when the cancer started emerging.

“This is a tremendous amount of funding to devote to this particular problem,” said Ostroff. “It will greatly advance our ability to get answers in this area.”

A study published in the February issue of Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention found that a large number of people in the McAdoo area who were suffering from cancer “lived in close proximity to environmental hazards.”

“The role of the environment in the origin of this blood cancer has not been previously documented,” said Ronald Hoffman, one of the study’s authors and a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “This study may prove that diagnosis of this cancer based solely on clinical criteria may be inaccurate. The frequency of this form of bone-marrow cancer could be specifically related to the environment.”

The funding would build on initial research, support significant epidemiological and environmental studies related to the disease, and improve the reporting of PV cases, Ostroff said.

The McAdoo area represents the first recorded PV cluster in the United States, health officials said, but researchers are looking at other potential clusters in West Virginia.

“We’ve established the fact that there is more disease than there ought to be,” said Ostroff. “Now that we’ve defined the ‘what,’ we need to try to answer ‘why.’ ”

The state Department of Health requested a federal survey in 2006 after area residents complained about seemingly high rates of disease.

In one case, two members of the same family fell ill with the disorder, as did several of their neighbors. Betty Kester, who was interviewed for an Inquirer story on the PV cases in October 2007, and her husband, Lester, both died in 2008.