Researchers have discovered a potential link between a significant number of cases of a rare blood cancer and environmental contaminants in Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties.
The blood cancer identified in the Tamaqua area is known as polycythemia vera – an abnormal increase in blood cells (primarily red blood cells) due to excess production of the cells by the bone marrow.
Polycythemia vera is an acquired disorder of the bone marrow that causes the overproduction of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. It is a rare disease that occurs more frequently in men than women, and rarely in patients under age 40. The exact cause is unknown.
The study found a large number of patients with polycythemia vera living near known areas of hazardous waste material. Those sources include waste-coal power plants and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites.
The incidence of this blood cancer was 4.3 times more likely near hazardous waste material than in the rest of the study area. The possibility of this happening by chance is 1 in 2,000. Other forms of cancer were not found to be more common in this area.
“The role of the environment in the origin of this blood cancer has not been previously documented,” said Dr. Ronald Hoffman, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “This study may prove that diagnosis of this cancer based solely on clinical criteria may be inaccurate. The frequency of this form of bone marrow cancer could be specifically related to the environment.”
U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia, has been working with residents in the three affected counties to get answers. Kate Kelly, the senator’s spokeswoman, issued a statement Tuesday.
“This study highlights long-standing concerns Senator Specter has had regarding the higher than usual incidence of polycythemia vera in the tri-county area,” Kelly said. “This underscores the need for more resources to further study the problem, including the basic biology of polycythemia vera and related conditions as arising in this cluster.”
In late August, U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke, sent a letter to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) urging the agency to give the matter its fullest attention.
“The increased number of PV cases and the lack of information currently known about the disease are of great concern to me,” Kanjorski wrote. “From my perspective, however, ATSDR must work quickly to learn more about this disease.”
Hoffman was among the researchers in the study, published in the February 2009 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. Hoffman worked with the Agency for Toxic Substances, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Geisinger/Hazleton Cancer Center on this article.
The study indicates that environmental pollutants may play an important role in causing bone marrow cancers, suggesting that further research is needed in this area.
Specter held a public hearing in October with community members and officials who have been directly involved with the blood disorder, including residents who have advocated for attention and study of the region’s health problems, community members who are suffering from the rare blood cancer, the doctors that treat them, and officials from Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
In June, Specter, ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, announced the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved $262,000 for Drexel University School of Public Heath in Philadelphia to investigate the polycythemia vera cluster in Northeast Pennsylvania.