WOODSTOCK – A special meeting of the McHenry County Board of Health to discuss brain-cancer cases in McCullom Lake became a two-hour criticism of the patients’ attorney and the Northwest Herald.
The health board, and the county health department that it oversees, criticized attorney Aaron Freiwald for not sharing medical records of 22 brain, nerve and pituitary cancer victims who are suing two factories in nearby Ringwood. The lawsuits, filed in groups since April 2006, blame air and groundwater contamination for plaintiffs’ illnesses.
Board member Richard Gorski said Freiwald was keeping information secret to try to force the defendants, Rohm and Haas and Modine Manufacturing, into a settlement. Freiwald, who lives in Pennsylvania, could not be reached for comment after the meeting.
“We’re not in this for the money,” Gorski said. “We’re not in this for getting a piece of flesh. We’re in this because there are 975 other people [in the village] that potentially may be exposed to something that this attorney knows, and he is unwilling to share that with us.
“That’s what really galls me, and I find that not only wrong, but I find that amoral.”
Gorski and others also defended a 2006 epidemiology study undertaken by county health officials that concluded that McCullom Lake’s brain-cancer rates were not above normal. Board members had harsh words for a Dec. 18 investigation by the newspaper that concluded, based on official documents and sworn testimony, that the study was rushed and flawed.
The meeting resulted in no official action. Gorski made a motion to ask staff members to list alleged inaccuracies in the newspaper’s six-part investigation into the cancers, but the board voted against it.
The newspaper’s investigation found, among other things, that the county’s data excluded all but one of the victims, and relied in great part on maps from the defendants to determine groundwater flow and contamination extent.
Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty said the newspaper “chose to ignore, spin or downplay key facts that have come to their attention,” but he did not list any.
Board President Ed Varga, who called the special meeting with Gorski, said he did not know what direction the board might give the health department when it met at its regular time Monday evening. But the course of action, he said, could be not to take one.
“As far as direction, I don’t think there’s a very clear direction except stay the course,” Varga said. “Make sure that any information that we have is considered, and make sure we keep human health as the primary concern of the department.”
Varga and other board members occasionally had to steer the conversation away from the litigation and the newspaper, stressing that the board’s responsibility was public health.
Board member James Haughton and others said they could not even be sure that the cases existed without reviewing the medical records that Freiwald would not release. The newspaper’s investigation found that health officials did not ask Freiwald for them until after members presented their findings to village residents.
That comment irked plaintiff Bryan Freund, a plaintiff diagnosed in 2004 with brain cancer, and his longtime friend, Rusty Thomas. Freund, who still lives in McCullom Lake, was diagnosed seven months after one former next-door neighbor, and a month before his other next-door neighbor.
“Well, he’s right here,” Thomas said before Varga called for order. “Want to see his scar?”
Former board member Santo Ruggero, who now acts as an adviser to the department, also was offended by the investigation, but downplayed any long-term effect that it would have on the department’s credibility.
“People’s memories who read the newspapers are short,” Ruggero said. “So maybe in about a year, nobody will remember this.”
You can read and watch the Northwest Herald’s analysis of the McHenry County Department of Health’s epidemiology study, as well as the rest of its six-part investigation into the McCullom Lake brain-cancer cases, at nwherald.com/mccullomlake .