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Officials backpedal on Pa. cancer study

An abstract making an environmental link to the disease was released by mistake, they say.

ATLANTA - Officials abruptly backpedaled on a federally funded health study that suggested an environmental link to a cluster of rare blood cancer cases in Northeastern Pennsylvania, saying an abstract that made the claim was mistakenly released to the public.

The research is to be presented Monday at a medical conference in Atlanta. An abstract released in advance of the meeting said there was "significant evidence" that something in the environment caused an unusually large number of cases of polycythemia (pah-lee-sy-THEE'-mee-ah) vera in Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill Counties.

The abstract, submitted to the American Society of Hematology, also said people who had lived within 13 miles of a former toxic waste dump in northern Schuylkill County developed the blood cancer at a rate 4.5 times higher than people living in other parts of the three counties.

Steve Dearwent, a government epidemiologist, said that the abstract was written early in the summer and that subsequent analysis of the data did not support the conclusion of an environmental link, although he added that it still was a possibility. He said the abstract should have been revised before it was submitted.

"We're going to have to retract the abstract to correct the record because it is erroneous information," said Dearwent, chief of health investigations for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal agency that oversaw the study. "It was preliminary and hadn't been vetted, and unfortunately, it got submitted, unbeknownst to most people here."

Dearwent said additional research might prove an environmental link. And the study's lead researcher, Dr. Ronald Hoffman of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said that the data do point to something in the environment.

"Based upon the data, there's significant concern that there is something in the environment leading to the development of polycythemia vera in that area. The nature of what's causing it is unknown at the moment and is going to require further study," he said.

Dante Picciano, a lawyer and geneticist who is active in local environmental issues, said the data indicate a much larger problem than polycythemia vera. He wants study of a wide range of cancers and other diseases in the region.

"This is the tip of the iceberg. It's inconceivable that you're going to have environmental exposures cause an increase in [only] one type of rare cancer," he said.

Polycythemia vera, classified as a cancer, can lead to heart attack or stroke. About one case of polycythemia vera occurs each year for every 100,000 Americans. The cause is unknown.

Local activists have raised suspicions about McAdoo Associates, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where a hazardous waste recycling business operated from 1975 to 1979 and accepted hundreds of thousands of gallons of paint sludge, waste oils, used solvents, PCBs, cyanide, pesticides, and many other known or suspected carcinogens.

Environmental officials shut down the site in 1979, and it was later placed on the federal Superfund list and cleaned up.

Residents fear that chemicals leached into the region's water supplies and polluted private wells and public reservoirs. State and federal environmental officials have said for years that the McAdoo site does not pose a health threat.

Activists have also raised concerns about five power plants in Schuylkill County fueled by waste coal and about the practice of filling abandoned coal mines with ash created by coal-burning power plants.

In October, officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances confirmed 38 cases of polycythemia vera in the region and said the rate was elevated.

At the time, federal officials said there was no proof of an environmental cause, and that cases were scattered throughout the area in no predictable pattern - making the assertions in the abstract surprising.