Rare cancer in northeast Pa. subject of $5.5 million study


By Michael Rubinkam, Philadelphia Enquirer

ALLENTOWN - Residents of an environmentally degraded region of eastern Pennsylvania say they're looking forward to finally getting answers now that Congress has approved millions to study the first known cluster of a rare blood cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will receive most of a $5.5 million appropriation to examine whether an environmental exposure is responsible for the cluster, whose victims live in a hardscrabble region 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Three Superfund sites, a power plant fired by waste coal, and several abandoned strip mines filled with coal combustion waste are among the culprits suspected of making people sick in a 20-mile stretch between Hazleton and Tamaqua.

"I'd like to get to the bottom of where in the hell this is coming from," said Meryl Wertman, 63, of Tamaqua. He was diagnosed in 2003 with polycythemia vera, or PV, a cancer that results in the overproduction of red blood cells and can lead to heart attack or stroke.

In August, government epidemiologists confirmed 33 cases of PV in Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties - four times the expected number. It remains the only cluster of PV ever recorded in the United States, though the condition only became reportable to state cancer registries in 2001, and officials have said it's statistically likely there are others. The cause of PV is unknown.

CDC researchers will get $5 million to conduct risk assessments and lead efforts to improve PV reporting. Drexel University's School of Public Health will receive about $500,000. An expert panel convened by the government has proposed a dozen research projects.

Residents and activists, who have long accused state and federal officials of ignoring health hazards in the coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, say they'll watch closely to make sure the money is spent wisely.

The funding should pay for "unbiased, fair, objective science to get to the truth of what may be happening in the area. The people here deserve answers," said community activist Joe Murphy.

"We know what was dumped," he said. "We know there are point sources of contamination here, and as long as the right science is done, we will uncover what is happening."

Dr. Peter Baddick, an internist who has sounded the alarm about PV, said PV sufferers should be studied intensively "to find out what may be in their bodies that would lead them to develop" the genetic mutation associated with the disease.

Baddick has been harshly critical of the federal agency that confirmed the cluster, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which declared in 2007 there was no environmental link to PV. The agency was later forced to backtrack, saying its initial study in Pennsylvania was not designed to uncover a cause.

Congressional investigators said this week that ATSDR has obscured or overlooked potential health hazards near toxic pollution sites around the country - and cited the agency's initial investigation into the PV cluster as evidence.

Sen. Arlen Specter, who secured the funding, said in a statement that "the community is very concerned about the problem and they're entitled to the best answers science can give them."

Among the cluster's victims are four people on a single road in Rush Township, Schuylkill County, including a husband and wife who died within months of each other last year.

Betty and Lester Kester lived downhill from one of the worst toxic waste dumps in the nation - a recycler that accepted huge quantities of known or suspected carcinogens until environmental officials shut it down in 1979 and placed it on the federal Superfund list.

Mrs. Kester, who was instrumental in drawing public attention to PV, died in September at age 80. Baddick said tissue samples taken from her body after her death should be studied closely for clues of an environmental link.

The MPD Foundation, an organization that funds research into PV and similar blood disorders, said Thursday it will award grants for research into the Pennsylvania cluster from a memorial fund set up in her name.

Receive updates on the latest MPN news & events.

Find out ways you can help support MPN patients and researchers.



Get free, timely information on living with an MPN.