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Setbacks litter road to well testing

If Rohm and Haas-subsidized environmental testing takes place in McCullom Lake, it will be a success for county government after a year of setbacks trying to address local brain cancer concerns.

Three former village next-door neighbors with brain cancer sued Ringwood manufacturer Rohm and Haas in April 2006, accusing its pollution of causing a cluster of brain and pituitary cancers. The McHenry County Department of Health concluded a month later that no cluster exists, but its work since has faced significant scrutiny.

The number of plaintiffs stood at 23 by summer 2009, when County Board member Tina Hill began pressuring County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, to seek outside help.

Hill, R-Woodstock, grew up in the neighboring Lakeland Park subdivision in McHenry. Two of her childhood friends had been diagnosed with brain cancer and sued, and doctors diagnosed Hill’s older sister with a large pituitary tumor. A third childhood friend sued later that year.

Rohm and Haas announced last month its willingness, at Koehler’s request, to help pay for air and water testing in the village. But prior county attempts to find answers or assurances for village residents fell short.

The ATSDR

Koehler decided after a closed-door meeting Aug. 13, 2009, to consult the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The agency’s mission is to reduce and prevent human health effects of toxic exposure from waste sites, accidents and other sources.

The meeting took place the day after four more plaintiffs filed suit, including Hill’s sister, bringing the number to 27.

The health department had asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 2006 for a consultation – the agency and the Illinois Department of Public Health concluded that residents were not at risk. Koehler said he intended to ask the ATSDR to “take another look.”

<bold>The problem:</bold> The Northwest Herald revealed the following day that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was facing congressional scrutiny for its inability to credibly investigate illnesses blamed on contamination.

A March 2009 report for the House Science and Technology Committee alleged that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry seeks to “deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore” legitimate community health concerns and experts’ opinions. It concluded that the agency often is a “clear and present danger to the public’s health” rather than a strong advocate protecting it.

The congressman who headed the investigation accused the agency of seeking to please industry and government rather than acting on the people’s behalf.

The CDC

Koehler subsequently asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate.

The CDC agreed to do so in an Oct. 5, 2009, letter, but only by reviewing research done to date by county and state health agencies, which concluded that no cluster exists. The following day, another brain cancer victim filed suit, bringing the number of plaintiffs to 30.

A Feb. 2, 2010, letter from the CDC concluded that the studies done by the county and state health departments were accurate, thorough and “scientifically appropriate.”

<bold>The problem: </bold> The CDC’s letter did not ease the concerns of Hill and other skeptics, given that the agency looked at the same data that every other agency did. The sheer number of plaintiffs also made the findings difficult for Hill and others to believe.

The Pennsylvania judge hearing the cases dealt the credibility of the work a blow on May 12, when he ruled that the county, state and CDC’s work was inadmissible at trial. He concluded that the agencies’ studies were “irrelevant to the issues” because none of them looked at brain cancer rates specific to McCullom Lake.

UIC

Koehler in March reached out to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health. He had hoped to persuade its Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences to investigate whether McCullom Lake is safe today.

A month later, a former Lakeland Park resident diagnosed with brain cancer became the 31st and latest plaintiff.

The division informed Koehler in a June 18 letter that it was not conducting health hazard evaluations until further notice for administrative reasons. Its officials offered instead to help the county meet with village residents to educate them about environmental health issues, and to act as “neutral observers.”

<bold>The problem: </bold> The Northwest Herald revealed in a July 13 story that UIC’s School of Public Health had in fact been involved in the lawsuits.

A senior epidemiology professor had been retained by the plaintiffs’ attorney in 2006 to help develop and analyze an epidemiology study of the McCullom Lake area, but she abruptly quit the following year.

According to court records, the UIC epidemiologist quit the day after she received a phone call from a lead expert witness for Rohm and Haas, with whom she had been working on another project. The judge hearing the cases in 2008 disqualified Rohm and Haas’ expert for having inappropriate contact.

McCullom Lake Village President Terry Counley spurned UIC’s offer and began pressuring county government to pay for well testing on its own.

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