Records questioning county's conclusions on alleged cancer cluster often kept private

It’s been four years since the McHenry County Department of Health last released an update of its epidemiological investigation of brain cancer rates in McCullom Lake.

There have been at least two updates since, but members of the public wouldn’t know that unless they asked for them under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Both reinforce the department’s conclusion that county and local brain cancer rates are normal, contrary to 33 lawsuits since 2006 alleging that industrial pollution caused a brain cancer cluster. However, both also question the methodology of the department’s prior work, which called an all-clear based on brain cancer rates across the village’s much larger ZIP code.

As one of her last acts as county epidemiologist, Kristen Harrison updated the department’s 2006 study with fresh statistics from the Illinois State Cancer Registry. Her November 2011 report concluded, as did her 2009 update and the work of her two predecessors, that brain cancer rates are normal.

Unlike her predecessors, however, Harrison stated that the county’s practice of calculating cancer rates by the 60050 ZIP code is “not appropriate in this case,” citing factors such as shifting boundaries and confidentiality issues.

Her work has never been presented to the Board of Health, unlike the work of her predecessors. It cannot be found on the health department’s website dedicated to the McCullom Lake issue, unlike the previous studies that contain no such caveat.

Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty said both of Harrison’s analyses were for “in-house use.” The health department, he said, decided in 2009 to have the Illinois Department of Public Health that runs the registry provide analysis of McHenry County brain cancer rates.

Media and good-government groups use Sunshine Week every March to show the importance of open information and transparent government. Records requests filed over the years show that this is not the first time that the health department has not shared information in its possession that could call its conclusions on the McCullom Lake brain cancer cases into dispute.

Memo origins

Three former McCullom Lake next-door neighbors filed suit in April 2006 against Philadelphia-based chemical manufacturer Rohm and Haas, alleging that their brain tumors were caused by air and groundwater pollution from its chemical plant in neighboring Ringwood.

Barely a month later, as the number of brain cancer plaintiffs doubled to six, the health department concluded before worried village residents and county government that area brain cancer rates were normal. It also presented maps from Rohm and Haas’ outside environmental firm, URS Corp., showing that a mile-long plume of vinyl chloride and other carcinogenic solvents oozing from a closed 8-acre waste pit at the plant never came close to McCullom Lake or its private wells.

A 2007 Northwest Herald investigative series presented evidence calling the integrity of the groundwater and epidemiology research into question.

The newspaper printed memos revealing that former plant owner Morton International had known the waste pit was contaminating groundwater as early as 1973, a decade before they reported it to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Consultants with URS confided in emails that their maps were constrained by the limited distribution of the monitoring wells. One called the map of the plume “very arbitrary” while another said that results were interpreted “to favor Rohm and Haas.”

The Northwest Herald didn’t get the memos from plaintiffs’ attorney Aaron Freiwald – it got them from the health department under FOIA. In December 2006, a year before the newspaper’s series ran, Freiwald mailed the documents and other information to McNulty and the IEPA.

Water flow

Freiwald’s experts allege that contamination made it to a deep aquifer, which took it south to McCullom Lake wells – Rohm and Haas’ experts scoff at the idea.

The health department has put on its website the URS report and state groundwater maps showing a southeasterly groundwater flow away from the village. Absent from the website are reports from another accredited environmental firm – reports the health department has had since 2008 – that state differently.

The Modine Manufacturing plant just south of Rohm and Haas has contributed the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene to the plume. The plant, which settled with the plaintiffs in 2008, submits reports to the IEPA just like Rohm and Haas as part of their enrollment in the state’s voluntary cleanup program.

Reports from Modine’s outside consultant AECOM – formerly STS Consultants – state that the deep aquifer flows south or south-southwest, possibly toward the village.

McNulty, the county public health administrator, said the department is not withholding contrary information. He has chosen since the newspaper’s 2007 series to comment on McCullom Lake through written questions submitted by email.

“The IEPA has maintained their position that the groundwater contamination plume has been identified, the groundwater flow direction is consistent with previously identified groundwater flow and that the contamination plume has not impacted any private, semi private or public water supply wells,” McNulty wrote.

The state’s 1994 groundwater maps of the Ringwood area on the health department website are based on observations from only three local wells due to the area’s rural nature.

Rohm and Haas in 2010 agreed to pay to test village wells. Tests of 293 village wells in December 2010 came back clean except for a few with volatile organic compounds far below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits.

Air tests of 10 village homes last year likewise came up below U.S. EPA limits for contaminants. The health department has never investigated air pollution alleged in the lawsuits, based in large part, they said, on their personal observations of area wind direction.

Some explaining

Included on the health department website are letters from the IDPH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that back the county’s work.

The IDPH letter from 2009 states that countywide brain cancer rates are normal, but says it is difficult to measure anything smaller. The 2010 letter from the CDC states that the county’s analysis “was comprehensive and correct analytically,” McNulty pointed out.

Harrison declined to comment as to why her reports, which called examining rates by ZIP code not appropriate, were not made public.

“You’ll have to ask the health department about that,” she said.

Plaintiffs Bryan and Rusty Freund, who are among the three original next-door neighbors, believe that the health department owes more than an explanation.

Doctors diagnosed Bryan Freund in December 2004 with oligodendroglioma, a brain cancer that occurs in about one person in 300,000. His former neighbor, Kurt Weisenberger, was diagnosed with the same disease.

The Freunds blame the health department in large part as the reason why only about 100 people took advantage of MRIs paid for through the Modine settlement. They said they know people who didn’t pursue the opportunity – and now regret the decision – because of the health department’s pronouncements.

Two of the 33 plaintiffs – one with a brain tumor and the other with a large tumor near her pituitary gland – were diagnosed through Modine-funded screening.

The latest plaintiff, Lloyd Powell of Huntley, died of brain cancer Jan. 27. He was 61.

“I don’t even see why they’re called the health department,” Rusty Freund said. “They have done absolutely nothing to protect the people here. Nothing.”

The judge hearing the first case ruled the work of the health department, the IDPH and the CDC inadmissible at trial and “irrelevant” to the question of brain cancer rates in McCullom Lake.

The judge abruptly dismissed the first trial in late 2010, alleging that the work of the plaintiffs’ epidemiologist was “an attempt to deceive the court,” and dismissed the case last April. The ruling is under appeal.

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