Public meeting on polycythemia vera cancer cluster set for Oct. 24 in Tamaqua, Pa.
The meeting will take place from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Tamaqua Area High School Auditorium at 500 Penn St.
ATSDR officials will provide an update on the voluntary screening that's underway to area test residents for the JAK2 genetic mutation linked to polycythemia vera, a condition in which the body produces too many blood cells. In July, the agency announced that it would make free JAK2 testing available after an earlier study found a statistically significant cluster of the disease in an area bordered roughly by Hazleton to the north, Tamaqua to the south and Gilberton to the west. (Click on map above for a larger version.)
The researchers involved in that study have said that the close proximity of the cancer cluster to known sources of hazardous pollution "raises concerns that such environmental factors might play a role in the origin of polycythemia vera."
While the agency has not yet officially released any findings from the genetic testing program, a source close to the investigation tells Hometown Hazards that the results offer cause for concern, with the JAK2 mutation occurring locally an at incidence far above the expected one or two cases of the disease per 100,000 population.
Also at the Oct. 24 meeting, representatives from ATSDR, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the Geisinger Clinic, and the Myeloproliferative Disease Research Consortium will present overviews of their current polycythemia vera research projects. Attendees will also hear more about a community group that will work with investigators.
Earlier this year, Congress allocated $5.5 million for further study of the polycythemia vera cluster.
While the ATSDR is focusing its current efforts on polycythemia vera, that is not the only cancer occurring at an unusually high rate in the tri-county area. The Pa. Department of Health's own study of local cancer rates from 1996 to 2002 also found statistically significantly elevated rates of other cancers:
* In Schuylkill County, buccal cavity and pharynx cancer for males and overall; colon and rectal cancer for males, females and overall; liver cancer overall; pancreatic cancer for females and overall; bronchus and lung cancer for females; cervix and uterine cancer; prostate cancer; and Hodgkin's lymphoma overall.
* In Luzerne County, stomach cancer for males, females and overall; colon and rectum cancer for males and overall; larynx cancer for males and overall; bronchus and lung cancer for females and overall; uterine cancer; thyroid cancer for females and overall; and leukemias for males, females and overall.
* In Carbon County, melanoma of the skin overall.
Though residents of Pennsylvania's anthracite coalfields don't typically think of themselves as part of Appalachia, the area is officially in the Appalachian region -- and the higher rate of illnesses and premature deaths in Appalachian mining communities has been documented by Michael Hendryx, associate director of the West Virginia University Institute for Health Policy Research in the school's Department of Community Medicine.
In a study released in July, Hendryx and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University documented how coal mining areas in Appalachia experience almost 11,000 more deaths each year compared with comparable areas elsewhere in the nation, with approximately 2,300 of those deaths related to environmental factors such as air and water pollution.
"Those who are falling ill and dying young are not just the coal miners," said Hendryx. "Everyone who lives near the mines or processing plants or transportation centers is affected by chronic socioeconomic weakness that takes a toll in longevity and health."
Another possible environmental factor contributing to the elevated cancer rates in the anthracite coal region is the area's high concentration of waste-coal-burning power plants, which release more cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons than conventional burners. PAHs have been associated with the specific genetic mutation involved in polycythemia vera.
In addition, coal ash waste from these plants is being used to fill the area's numerous abandoned mines, creating the potential for contamination of groundwater with the ash's toxic components, which include arsenic, lead, mercury and radioactive elements as well as PAHs. Many residents of the largely rural anthracite region get their drinking water from wells, creating another potential pathway for toxic exposure besides air pollution.
The anthracite region is also home to numerous Superfund and other toxic waste sites as well as actively polluting industrial facilities.