Meeting Addresses Polycythemia Vera Epidemic
ATSDR held the meeting at the Schuylkill County Ag Center to gather more information from local physicians about the incidence of p. vera and other cancers. However, the only local physician in attendance was Dr. Pete Baddick, who has been pressing state and federal officials to investigate possible contamination of the Still Creek Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to the Hometown-Tamaqua area, from the nearby McAdoo Associates Superfund site. ATSDR, PADOH and PADEP deny that there is any widespread contamination of the local drinking water supply based on tests conducted by the Tamaqua Water Authority.
Press reports prior to the meeting characterized it as a "closed-door session." However, I attended along with Shawn Hessinger of the Pottsville Republican, who reported on the event in today's paper.
The meeting opened with a presentation by Dr. Gene Weinberg of PADOH on the Tamaqua Area Cancer Incidence Study released by his agency earlier this year. That study found dramatically elevated rates of p. vera in Schuylkill and Luzerne counties compared to the state, which is elevated compared to the nation. Weinberg also presented data that had not been shared with the public before showing p. vera rates for specific communities in Carbon, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties. Among the Schuylkill County communities with dramatically elevated rates of the disease are Frackville, Mahanoy City and Tremont.
One of the problems discussed at length was the disparity between the numbers of p. vera cases being reported to the state cancer registry and the numbers reported anecdotally by Baddick and other local environmental health advocates. For example, Baddick says one local oncology practice serving Carbon, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties reports that it is currently treating 70 active cases of p. vera, while another local practice reports treating 19 active cases—numbers far higher than those collected by the registry. ATSDR wants to explore ways of ensuring that local physicians are reporting cases appropriately.
Baddick talked about his experience as a general internist who has observed unusual local incidence rates of cancers, especially myelodysplastic syndromes including p. vera, leukemia and multiple myeloma. He and Hometown resident Joe Murphy also presented information on the severity of the toxic contamination at the McAdoo Associates site gathered as the result of research for a possible lawsuit against the site’s responsible parties. The firm working on that suit, Locks Law of Philadelphia, recently concluded after a year and a half of work that it does not have a legal basis for proceeding with an action for civil damages at this time due to a lack of evidence that poisons dumped at the site have migrated to nearby wells or the reservoir. Baddick and Murphy are among those pressing for further testing of the reservoir in order to establish that evidence.
I also spoke at the meeting, questioning Baddick's and Murphy's single-minded focus on the Still Creek Reservoir. While acknowledging the severe contamination at McAdoo Associates, I noted that given the elevated rates of p. vera throughout the entire region, it doesn't seem likely that the Still Creek Reservoir is the primary source of the p. vera problem. After all, people from Frackville, Mahanoy City and Tremont are not drinking from that reservoir. I did note, however, that one of the characteristics shared by those towns along with the Ben Titus Road area and other communities with elevated p. vera rates is the presence nearby of waste coal-fired power plants. I asked the ATSDR officials to keep an open mind about all possible toxic culprits, which they said they were planning to do.
Werner of ATSDR's Philadelphia office said that the agency is approaching this problem differently than usual. Normally the agency begins with a known toxic exposure and then examines health effects. But in this case, the agency will look at the cases of p. vera and try to find a common exposure—much like epidemiologists approached the recent outbreak of E. coli sickness that was eventually traced to bagged spinach from a California processing plant.
"We accept the fact that there have been serious environmental issues here," said ATSDR's Seaman. "The goal of this meeting is to ensure that the cases are in the registry so we can find possible connections."
Labels: polycythemia vera