The McHenry County Department of Health has assured the public during the past year that its analysis of brain cancer cases in McCullom Lake is legitimate.
Health officials determined in 2006 that local brain cancer rates were not above normal, and that groundwater pollution from Ringwood manufacturers Rohm and Haas and Modine Manufacturing Co. was not responsible for illnesses, contrary to allegations made in a number of lawsuits.
But the Northwest Herald determined in a December 2007 investigative series that the county's epidemiology analysis was slipshod and relied on data either too limited to be relevant or paid for by Rohm and Haas.
Since then, Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty has stated that the department had consulted with four government agencies during its work, and he defended relying on a pollution report paid for by the company because it was created by an independent outside firm.
Health department records, however, show that officials did not contact two of these agencies until a month after they publicly presented their conclusions. Officials also have never addressed private e-mails from the outside firm's researchers revealed in the newspaper's series in which they raised concerns about their own data.
Department records show that the department received the e-mails and other information challenging the integrity of the Rohm and Haas data a year before the newspaper's series ran.
When it came to the location and flow of contaminated groundwater from the manufacturers, the health department relied on a December 2005 study prepared for Rohm and Haas by outside firm URS Corp. But two senior URS consultants expressed misgivings during their work.
Both consultants, in May and September 2005 e-mails, said the maps of the contamination were constrained by the limited extent of monitoring wells drilled since the 1980s. The consultant who wrote the September e-mail, two weeks before URS collected the samples for the report, called the plume picture "very arbitrary," while the other wrote that results were interpreted "... to favor Rohm and Haas."
The newspaper revealed the e-mails in its December 2007 series, along with confidential memos revealing that the plant's former owners knew about the pollution a decade before reporting it to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. But the health department received them in December 2006.
Attorney Aaron Freiwald, who sued the manufacturers on behalf of the village and 22 plaintiffs as of today, mailed McNulty a 180-page packet with the e-mails and 16 other exhibits.
County Environmental Health Director Patti Nomm, who supervised the groundwater aspect of the county's investigation, said that she reviewed the packet. However, she said only information "reviewed and accepted by the [IEPA]" – such as Rohm and Haas groundwater reports – were utilized by the department. The IEPA relies on such reports to monitor pollution from the site and others in its voluntary remediation program.
But McNulty has never read it, and did not recognize parts of the packet presented to him when Freiwald took McNulty's deposition in March. McNulty and Nomm agreed to be interviewed for this story through e-mail questions submitted through the department's spokeswoman.
"No, I did not read it since a copy was also sent to the IEPA who is the regulatory authority in regards to air, land and water contamination in the state of Illinois," McNulty wrote. "The IEPA has the regulations, responsibility and the appropriate staff to determine what information is significant."
Freiwald said he found that odd because the department and Board of Health have berated him for not sharing information.
"For all that the department went on about how important this was, how concerned they were about this brain cancer cluster, and then not to have even read it?" Freiwald said.
Freiwald sent a copy to IEPA spokesman Stan Black, who helped the county present its findings to McCullom Lake's residents. Black reviewed it, but passed it on to agency legal counsel because it dealt with litigation, IEPA remedial project manager Joyce Munie said.
The lawsuits also allege that air contamination from the evaporating chemicals caused local brain cancers, which county health officials never have investigated.
Health officials have said that they are interested only in scientific reports approved by government agencies. But earlier this year, they accepted 1,500 pages of court filings from Rohm and Haas never vetted by the IEPA.
Ringwood plant facilities manager Tom Bielas in February offered the county copies of arguments that the company filed the month before in federal court, according to a company spokesman. McNulty testified that he told Bielas that "we would be happy to have it."
McNulty said he read one of the briefs, a 63-page argument disputing Freiwald's expert reports that the health department has never seen. He said he accepted the files only on the condition that they also be sent to the IEPA for review.
"This department has made no statements, conclusions or posting of these documents," McNulty said by e-mail. "The department was never offered court filings from the plaintiff. If we were, they would have been accepted under the same condition as the defendant."
That condition was never met – the IEPA never received the Rohm and Haas documents, spokeswoman Maggie Carson said. Freiwald's mailing did meet that condition, and he said the department's handling of both shows further bias, besides officials sharing their results with Rohm and Haas before showing them to the public.
"Rohm and Haas has attorneys, very capable attorneys, representing them," Freiwald said. "They don't need the health department to take sides."
The health department revisited its analysis earlier this year when the State Cancer Registry released statistics for 2005 – the county's original analysis relied on cancer data from 2003, years before most of the plaintiffs got sick.
Their latest analysis of brain cancer rates in the county and the village's ZIP code concludes that the rates were not statistically significant – a conclusion shared by the state epidemiologist who reviewed the analysis. Earlier this year, the state public health director commended the department for its work in a letter to state legislators concerned about the cancers.
The registry next year is expected to release statistics for 2006. That year, three of the plaintiffs living in the village, population 1,000, and a fourth in neighboring Ringwood, were diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly brain cancer that occurs in about 3 people per 100,000.
Subsequent health department research could face greater scrutiny from the McHenry County Board. Seven of the 12 board members elected last month said they had concerns about the department's work following the newspaper's investigation. New board member Kathleen Bergan Schmidt, D-Crystal Lake, called the study "... mishandled in about every which way it could be."
McHenry County's health department is not the first to be faced with an alleged brain cancer cluster blamed on Rohm and Haas. Four years before the McCullom Lake lawsuits, a Pennsylvania health department faced with a rash of brain cancers at the company's Spring House Technical Center did not investigate because they lacked the expertise.
The Montgomery County Department of Health was asked to investigate when the cases, now numbering 15, began making headlines, department spokeswoman Harriet Morton said. The department serves a county with more than twice the population of McHenry County.
"That type of study is not something that we do," Morton said. "We don't have the technical capabilities to do that."
Freiwald said McHenry County never had the capabilities either, and called their criticisms an attempt to shift attention to avoid public scrutiny.
Note to readers: This is the second story in a two-part series chronicling the developments in the McCullom Lake brain cancers since the Northwest Herald published a six-part investigative series, "Coincidence or Cluster?", in December 2007.
The Northwest Herald concluded in a Dec. 18, 2007, investigation that the McHenry County Department of Health's epidemiology analysis of brain cancers in McCullom Lake was poorly planned and researched.
• The state cancer statistics available to the county at the time ended in 2003 – years before most of the plaintiffs got sick. The health department analyzed cancer rates against the 49,000 people in McCullom Lake's ZIP code, not the 1,000 village residents.
• Based on the limitations of the data, only one of the 18 plaintiffs with brain or nerve cancer was factored into the county's original analysis. County health officials made no effort to contact any of the plaintiffs.
• The county relied on a groundwater report paid for by Rohm and Haas, and the newspaper acquired evidence showing that the report's researchers expressed concerns about the accuracy of the data.
• Health officials only looked at groundwater contamination and ignored the lawsuits' allegations of polluted air. The department concluded that contaminated air was not a factor based on personal observations of local weather patterns.
• The former county epidemiologist's cancer cluster study, her first, was guided by her college textbooks and class notes. It did not follow internationally-accepted epidemiology guidelines, and the county ignored the very steps it laid down to look into the cancers.
• County health officials presented some of their findings to Rohm and Haas executives before showing them to village residents and the McHenry County Board.