Varga: Put focus on health

McHenry County Board of Health President Edward Varga wants any discussion Monday about the McCullom Lake brain-cancer cases to be about public health, not lawsuits or news media coverage.

The nine-member board will meet at its regular time Monday, during which time members might or might not seek a course of action from the McHenry County Department of Health, Varga said Friday.

At a special meeting Wednesday, the nine-member board criticized the attorney suing two Ringwood manufacturers on behalf of 22 people for allegedly causing the cancers.

Board members also criticized a Northwest Herald investigation that called into question the integrity of the health department’s analysis of the alleged cancer cluster.

Varga said he wanted to steer clear of revisiting the same issues, or news of the settlement announced Friday between the plaintiffs and Modine Manufacturing, one of the companies named in the lawsuits.

“Our interest, as a board of health and our directions to the health department, has to be based on our mission statement,” Varga said. “Our business foremost is protecting the health of McHenry County residents, whether or not they are involved in lawsuits.”

Members agreed Wednesday with Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty that the Northwest Herald’s investigation was biased and inaccurate. The Dec. 18 story, the third in a six-part series, concluded that the county’s May 2006 study, finished a month after the first lawsuits were filed, lacked scientific merit.

It revealed, based on official documents and the former county epidemiologist’s sworn deposition, that it was guided by the epidemiologist’s college textbooks and maps from defendant companies Modine and Rohm and Haas. The investigation also revealed that county health officials did not follow the steps that they set out to investigate the cluster.

And although the county was upfront with village residents that the latest cancer data available from the state were three years old, the investigation showed that only one of the 22 plaintiffs was included, based on the data’s age and its limitation to the village’s ZIP code.

Board members also criticized the newspaper for stating that the department of health had cleared the defendant companies of wrongdoing. But the newspaper’s investigation quoted McNulty as saying the allegations are “completely inaccurate” and that the data were “conclusive.”

Newspaper stories covering the May 2006 county study and subsequent village meeting similarly quote Illinois Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Stan Black as saying that the agency “all along” has been sure that the contamination was not affecting private wells, and that the evidence “points away from [the defendants’ factories] being a causal factor.”

Members also criticized attorney Aaron Freiwald for withholding plaintiffs’ medical records from the county. Freiwald, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening, defended himself Friday afternoon after the settlement was announced.

Health department members did not ask Freiwald for medical records until after the May 31, 2006, meeting in which they presented their findings to village residents. Also, he replied in a December 2006 follow-up letter that he would be open to sharing information, pending a more detailed request. He said he never received such a request.

Freiwald said that every plaintiff’s medical records that prove that their brain-cancer diagnosis were submitted to the defendants as part of the pre-trial process.

“If they’re now interested in looking to take notice of this situation, I think that’s important and that’s good,” Freiwald said. “But I believe it’s just wrong to suggest the brain-cancer victims and their lawyers had some obligation to do the health department’s work for them.”

McNulty said in a brief Thursday interview that a presentation Wednesday by Environmental Health Director Patti Nomm revealed facts that the newspaper chose to “downplay, spin or ignore.” But the facts presented either did not contradict the allegations made in the newspaper’s investigation or were in fact reported.

Freiwald said he had subpoenaed McNulty to give a deposition on the health department’s handling of the investigation, which McNulty confirmed. The deposition is scheduled for sometime next month. Freiwald deposed the former county epidemiologist in September 2006.

If you go

The McHenry County Board of Health meets at 7 p.m. Monday at the Department of Health, 2200 N. Seminary Ave., Annex A, Woodstock.

Related links

>> Click here to read more from the Herald's investigation of McCullom Lake

>> Click here to watch a video from the Board of Health's special meeting held on Thursday

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