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Questions surround study

Many McHenry County officials have more questions than answers about a county health department study into a number of cancers afflicting residents with ties to McCullom Lake.

County health officials conducted an epidemiology study after a series of lawsuits were filed blaming contamination from two Ringwood companies for the plaintiffs’ cancers. To date, 22 people with ties to McCullom Lake have filed suit.

The health department concluded that the number of cancer cases in the area was not statistically significant and that known contamination at the defendant companies’ Ringwood facilities did not reach drinking wells in McCullom Lake.

After a six-month investigation into the cancer cases, the Northwest Herald concluded last week that the health department’s 2006 study was incomplete.

In response, some county officials defended the department, and others were critical of it.

“It was and still is suspect, in my mind, that that many cancers could show up in a very small piece of geography,” said County Board member Marc Munaretto, R-Algonquin. “It would seem to me that they could have, perhaps should have, done more research before stepping out onto the branch.”

Virginia Peschke, a Crystal Lake Republican and chairwoman of the county’s Public Health and Human Services Committee, defended the department.

“I certainly know that being close to the health department, they did everything that they thought is appropriate,” said Peschke, who also sits on the McHenry County Board of Health.

The newspaper’s analysis of the health department’s study determined that it was guided by college textbooks and class notes, relied on cancer data too old to be relevant, and relied in great part on maps of the contamination plume provided by one of the companies being sued.

Representatives of the companies named in the lawsuits, Rohm and Haas, its subsidiary Morton International, and Modine Manufacturing Co., say there is no connection between the cancers and their companies.

Peschke said it was not clear whether the county overstepped its limits by undertaking the study. But she did say she would have expected more assistance from agencies such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to handle the problem.

“It’s a very, very difficult problem, and I think we really need to get some expertise from on high to find out what’s the statistical significance of the cluster, if it is a cluster,” she said.

“This is a tough one,” Crystal Lake Republican Barbara Wheeler said. “It’s just such a sad thing for the people who have the cancer. I don’t know if the department’s doing the right thing, and the way it was explained to us, the plume, the contamination, I don’t know who to believe anymore.”

But county health board President Edward Varga said information presented to his board by health department officials didn’t draw conclusions about the potential causes of several cases of brain cancer that emerged in the area.

The health board heard a presentation on the health department’s study on May 22, 2006. Nine days later, department staff teamed up with members of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to share information with concerned residents at the McCullom Lake Village Hall.

“We have background, we have a history with [the former epidemiologist] and certainly in the past, she was able to provide a great deal of epidemiological information,” Varga said. “The information she provided was thorough. It was not at all a subjective, but rather an objective presentation. Her findings didn’t really draw a conclusion one way or the other.”

That’s not the impression that County Board member Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, got at the health department’s May 31, 2006, presentation to McCullom Lake residents. Hill grew up in the McHenry subdivision of Lakeland Park, southeast of the lake, and is a childhood friend of plaintiff and brain cancer victim Brian DiBlasi.

Hill attended the meeting with three other board members.

“It was concrete. ‘All’s well, move on,’ ” Hill said in summing up her impressions of the presentation given by health officials. “ ‘The water’s not contaminated, there’s no threat, this is a statistical anomaly.’ ”

Hill said her original optimism about the county’s findings had changed.

“I am concerned about what it looked like the county said they did and what they did,” she said. “I do understand that they’re coming up with a response, saying it’s a statistical analysis now and they are aware of their limitations.”

Although it’s up to a judge to determine culpability in the cases, McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler said the county needed to keep focused on protecting others from illness. He pointed out that the companies were accused of contaminating groundwater in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, meaning that if there were carcinogenic chemicals in village wells, they could have disappeared before the county started testing.

“I feel very concerned and compassionate for the people who have succumbed to this cancer, but I don’t know what more the county could have done,” Koehler said. “It’s hard for me to necessarily believe that we’re not doing the proper testing that we have the ability to do.”

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