CDC rarely probes cancer clusters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to receive County Board Chairman Ken Koehler’s request to investigate brain cancer cases in McCullom Lake.

And people expecting the agency to find all the answers, or any answers at all, likely will end up disappointed.

The CDC gets only a handful of requests to investigate cancer clusters, said Vivi Abrams, spokeswoman for the agency’s National Center for Environmental Health.

And when the agency does investigate, it is rarer still that a cancer cluster is determined to exist, much less what might have caused it.

“The CDC has become involved in certain situations, but it’s quite rare,” Abrams said.

“Cancer clusters are very difficult to associate with any kind of cause, whether it’s environmental or another cause.”

Three former McCullom Lake next-door neighbors diagnosed with brain cancer within eight months of one another filed suit in April 2006 against Ringwood manufacturer Rohm and Haas, alleging that decades of air and groundwater pollution from its facility caused their illnesses. There are 28 lawsuits on behalf of area residents with brain and pituitary cancers as of today that blame exposure to vinyl chloride and other volatile organic compounds.

Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, asked for CDC help in an Aug. 21 letter. County Board member Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, has been pushing for outside help since her older sister was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor in July and joined the lawsuits. The sisters grew up in the Lakeland Park subdivision on the McHenry side of the lake, as did several other plaintiffs.

Every request that the CDC receives is taken seriously because no two are alike, spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said. But the agency’s own guidelines for investigating disease clusters state that finding answers is rare.

“In many reports of cluster investigations, a geographic or temporal excess in the number of cases cannot be demonstrated,” the CDC guidelines state. “When an excess is confirmed, the likelihood of establishing a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between the health event and an exposure is slight.”

Abrams and Burden said that the CDC often will rely on or analyze work that state and local health departments have done, and both weighed in on the McCullom Lake cancers. But Northwest Herald investigations and the plaintiffs’ attorney have criticized the accuracy of their work.

The McHenry County Department of Health presented an epidemiology analysis a month after the first plaintiffs sued that concluded that brain cancer rates were not above normal and that industrial pollution never reached residents. A December 2007 newspaper series revealed that the department’s cancer data were three years old and covered a population almost 50 times the area of McCullom Lake and its 1,100 residents.

The department’s conclusions that groundwater pollution never reached village wells came from maps provided to it by Rohm and Haas, which got to see and review the health department’s presentation before its public release. Health officials never investigated allegations of air pollution, based on their personal observations of local weather patterns.

The Northwest Herald likewise learned that scientists who drew up the maps that the county relied on privately expressed concerns in memos about the accuracy of their data. The plaintiffs’ attorney mailed copies to the county health department a year before the newspaper’s series ran, but officials chose not to read them.

No McCullom Lake well has tested positive for any of the contaminants in the lawsuits since they first were filed. The county health department every year tests the same dozen or so of the village’s 400-plus wells, according to department maps of the test results.

A 2006 analysis by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry backed the health department’s conclusions based on the same data and the Rohm and Haas maps. But a congressional investigative committee this year blistered the agency’s investigative abilities, concluding that the agency practices “jackleg science” and has a “keenness to please industries and government agencies that prefer to minimize public health consequence.”

Koehler originally intended to ask the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to investigate, but went with the CDC after learning of the congressional report.

The lawsuits had included the Modine Manufacturing plant south of the Rohm and Haas facility, but Modine settled out of court last year for undisclosed sums with the plaintiffs and paid $2 million to settle the class-action lawsuit and establish a medical monitoring fund.

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