A University of Illinois at Chicago instructor laid it out plainly for McHenry County officials Monday morning – their wish for a study concluding that McCullom Lake is safe today is an unreachable goal.
County government reached out to the college’s Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the hope of securing an all-clear for village residents, four years into a series of lawsuits blaming area brain cancer cases on industrial pollution.
But instructor Salvatore Cali told the County Board’s Public Health and Human Services Committee that it’s “impossible to guarantee safety in a pretty dirty world.”
“You have the unenviable task of proving that something is safe, which is very hard to do,” Cali said.
In a June 18 letter, Cali declined Board Chairman Ken Koehler’s request for a health hazard evaluation because the college has suspended such studies. But Cali offered his division’s assistance to help educate the public about environmental contamination issues.
Thirty-one lawsuits since April 2006 allege that decades of groundwater pollution from Ringwood manufacturers Rohm and Haas and Modine Manufacturing fouled air and groundwater with vinyl chloride and other carcinogens, and caused a cluster of brain and pituitary cancers in McCullom Lake and the Lakeland Park subdivision in McHenry. The first trial is set to start Sept. 20 against Rohm and Haas, but Modine settled out of court in 2008.
The committee, Koehler and the McHenry County Department of Health want to hold a public meeting with area residents to discuss the situation. None of the village’s 400-plus private wells has tested positive for the contaminants blamed in the lawsuits.
Such a meeting, however, could find a much more skeptical audience.
The last such meeting took place May 31, 2006, a month after three former McCullom Lake next-door neighbors with brain cancer filed the first lawsuits. The health department told residents that state cancer data did not support a cluster, and that groundwater contamination never reached residents.
Northwest Herald investigations since 2007 have concluded that the health department’s work was scientifically flawed and biased in favor of the defendant companies. It used data collected years before most people got sick, and based on the village’s ZIP code of about 50,000 residents, rather than McCullom Lake’s 1,100 residents.
The health department’s all-clear regarding contamination came from maps provided to it by Rohm and Haas, which got to privately review the health department’s presentation before its public release. Newspaper investigations have since revealed confidential memos written by the consultants who drew the maps in which they questioned the accuracy of their data.
Health officials never addressed the allegations in the lawsuits that contaminated air reached village residents. Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty erroneously told Cali and the committee Monday that air contamination was not mentioned in the first lawsuits before his department’s original investigation – it was mentioned numerous times.
Cali said in his June 18 letter that his department, part of the college’s School of Public Health, could “serve as neutral observers.” But court documents show that UIC is no stranger to the litigation.
Several months after the first lawsuits, plaintiffs’ attorney Aaron Freiwald hired UIC epidemiology professor Faith Davis to help develop an epidemiology study for McCullom Lake and help analyze its results. She also had been doing independent epidemiology work with Duke University neuro-oncologist Dr. Darrell Bigner, who was an expert witness for Rohm and Haas.
Davis had provided Freiwald with slides from that work that listed vinyl chloride as a potential human carcinogen, which ran contrary to Bigner’s reports for Rohm and Haas. Freiwald asked Bigner about those slides in a July 2007 deposition. The next day, Bigner and Davis had a conference call, and the day after that, Davis informed Freiwald that she no longer would be involved with the case, according to court records.
A Pennsylvania judge in October 2008 disqualified Bigner from serving as an expert witness for Rohm and Haas for having inappropriate communication with the plaintiffs’ expert. Freiwald said Monday that county officials are “looking in the wrong place” for independent, neutral observers.
“I don’t see how the county should have the first thing to do with these people,” Freiwald said. “Once again, the county is stepping in it.”
The public health committee plans to continue the discussion at its August meeting.
On the Web
You can read and watch the Northwest Herald’s ongoing investigation of the McCullom Lake brain cancer cases at NWHerald.com/mccullomlake.