August 24, 2007

Polycythemia vera is a rare bone marrow cancer occurring with a frequency of between one in 100,000 and one in 200,000 people per year. In 2004, the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians reported an unusual cluster of polycythemia vera cases in people living on Ben Titus Road, along the Still Creek Reservoir in Rush Township. Since then, there have been three studies in this area of cancer rates and polycythemia vera by government agencies. The Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH) conducted two of the studies and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the federal Department of Health and Human Resources, conducted the other study.

The two cancer studies by the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH) left the affected residents with little information of significance about the rates of cancer in the area or the cause of the polycythemia vera.

A recent newspaper article reported that the ATSDR is completing its study on the incidence of polycythemia vera in Carbon, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties and that the agency has found an almost quadrupling of the incidence of this cancer in the area. The ATSDR is expected to present its results to the public at the end of September.

Assuming that the recent newspaper article is correct, and we see no reason why it should not be correct, we would expect the ATSDR to announce that there is a dramatic increase in the incidence of polycythemia vera in this area. The next step will be to discover what is causing this unusually high incidence of this rare cancer in our communities. Before, the ATSDR attempts to address the causes or causes, we would like to help point the agency in the right direction.

First, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, the top polluters in Schuylkill County in 2005 (the most recent year for which data are available) were five coal-burning plants. Together, these five plants released 2,219,827 pounds of pollutants into the environment or 85.7 percent of all reported releases in Schuylkill County for 2005. The releases included arsenic, barium, chromium, dioxins, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, lead, mercury and other chemicals that may cause cancer or linger in human tissues or the environment.

Second, the State of Delaware has confirmed a link between a coal-burning plant and an increase in cancer among exposed residents. The Delaware News Journal reported that years after citizen activists first asked the state to investigate the problem, the Delaware Division of Public Health has finally confirmed what the activists suspected: There’s a cluster of cancer cases near a coal-burning plant, the state’s worst polluter. The study confirmed that the rate of cancer cases in the area around the plant is 17 percent higher than the national average (see Delaware confirms coal plant ñ cancer cluster link, www.dante7.com).

Third, a reporter, Sue Sturgis, from North Carolina has reviewed the PA DOH’s data of reported cases of polycythemia vera by county for the years 2001 through 2003 and suggests a possible association between polycythemia vera and power plants that burn waste coal (see Cancer researcher confirms possible link between polycythemia, waste-fuel-burning power plants, www.hometownhazards.com).

In a mystery novel, Sherlock Holmes once said, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” We are hoping that this letter will prevent obvious facts from being deceptive for the ATSDR.