The McHenry County Department of Health’s criticized epidemiology research into the McCullom Lake brain cancer cluster will not be heard by the jury in the first related lawsuit.
A Pennsylvania judge ruled that the county study, as well as subsequent work done by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are inadmissible in court. The ruling means that Rohm and Haas, the chemical manufacturer blamed in the lawsuits for the cancers, cannot cite the studies in its defense.
Judge Allan Tereshko concluded in a two-page ruling Wednesday that the three agencies’ work was “irrelevant to the issues” because none looked at brain cancer rates specific to McCullom Lake.
The county’s epidemiology analysis, finished within weeks of the first lawsuits in 2006, only examined the 60050 ZIP code – McCullom Lake makes up 2 percent of it. Likewise, recent IDPH and CDC letters backing the health department’s conclusions only studied countywide brain cancer rates.
Tereshko granted motions filed in April by plaintiffs’ attorney Aaron Freiwald, who argued that the studies had no bearing on the case.
“The county and state studies – if they can even properly be called studies – are so irrelevant to the question of whether there is a statistically significant higher incidence of brain cancers in McCullom Lake, that this evidence should be precluded because of its propensity to confuse and mislead the jury,” Freiwald wrote.
Tereshko based his decision on the rule of law, not the studies’ merit. But the ruling casts a further pall on the county health department’s work – its investigation into McCullom Lake brain cancer concerns has been ruled irrelevant in a trial over the same.
Rohm and Haas is accused in 31 lawsuits of causing a cluster of brain and pituitary tumors in McCullom Lake and the neighboring Lakeland Park subdivision in McHenry. The lawsuits allege that decades of air and groundwater contamination from its Ringwood plant fouled residents’ air and groundwater with carcinogenic vinyl chloride and other volatile chemicals.
Eight of Rohm and Haas’ planned defense exhibits included material from the studies, according to court records. The first lawsuit goes to trial June 7.
Northwest Herald investigations since 2007 have concluded that the county’s epidemiology work was scientifically flawed and geared toward calling an all-clear rather than credibly investigating local cancer concerns.
The county study relied on cancer data collected years before most plaintiffs got sick – cancer data kept by the IDPH runs three years behind. The data also lumped brain and nervous system cancers into one category, preventing a true analysis.
The health department did not pursue getting cancer data more specific to McCullom Lake from the State Cancer Registry, which can be done by writing a scientific protocol and going through a review board. A Columbia University epidemiologist hired by Freiwald did just that, according to IDPH records. He will present his findings at trial.
Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty, who runs the county health department, declined comment because the county is not involved in the litigation, department spokeswoman Debra Quackenbush said. The health department and the Board of Health that supervises it has steadfastly defended the department’s work.
County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, who also has defended the county’s handling of the cancers, did not return calls seeking comment.
News of the ruling did not surprise County Board member Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, who has called the health department’s conclusions “just plain wrong.” Hill has been pursuing an outside look into the problem since last year – she grew up in Lakeland Park, and the plaintiffs now include her older sister and three of her childhood friends.
“The [health department] was using an inexperienced epidemiologist right out of college, and trying to get, I believe, a simple answer to a complex question,” Hill said. “But I give them credit that they’ve hung with me to some degree in trying to get a better answer on this.”
Hill balked at the idea that the county should officially retract the health department’s analysis of the cancers or offer an apology to McCullom Lake residents or the plaintiffs.
“I think it’s understood that [the health department] fell short,” she said. “I don’t see what good that would do.”