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Published: Monday, 5/16/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Clyde child-cancer cluster likely to remain a mystery

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Robert Karwowski, director of environmental health and safety for Whirlpool, says the firm’s release of volatile organic compounds into the air from its Clyde factory is declining. The firm says it has nothing to hide in the cancer studies. Robert Karwowski, director of environmental health and safety for Whirlpool, says the firm’s release of volatile organic compounds into the air from its Clyde factory is declining. The firm says it has nothing to hide in the cancer studies.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

CLYDE, Ohio — Barring a major development, parents of eastern Sandusky County’s cancer-stricken children will soon get the news they feared: The state of Ohio may close the books on its investigation into the mysterious cancer cluster there, unable to explain why so many kids got sick or died.

“I think we’ve done everything we could do,” said Robert Indian, head of the Ohio Department of Health’s comprehensive cancer-control program and the top state official from that agency who probes evidence of cancer epidemics.

By the end of May, two new reports will be released.

One will be an analysis of additional data gathered after the investigation was expanded beyond Clyde in the fall of 2009 to include Fremont and the northern tip of Seneca County.

The other will be based on soil samples the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency collected from the Clyde area this spring.

The data were turned over April 14 for review by Bob Frey, an environmental health toxicologist for the state of Ohio who is a colleague of Mr. Indian.

Although Mr. Indian would not provide specifics about either report, he indicated there were no breakthroughs.

“We haven’t found a smoking gun yet,” he said.

The probe was expanded to a broader geographic area after officials realized the number of unusually high cancer cases went farther than Clyde and nearby Green Springs Township.

Cancer is becoming more common in adults, but is extremely rare — with causes even harder to pinpoint — in children.

Once the study group was expanded from its original 19 families to 35, officials began gathering information about the additional people to look for commonalities.

They apparently found none. Families live in different areas, their children go to different schools, and they get their drinking water from two or three different sources. Nothing was tying together data enough to lead investigators down a single exposure pathway, let alone point fingers at a source of pollution.

‘Brutally honest’

“We were brutally honest with people from the beginning. We told them we may never find the cause,” Mr. Indian said. “The track record across the country is you rarely find the cause of something like this. It gets horribly complex.”

Dave Hisey and Warren Brown, fathers of cancer-stricken children involved in the study, said they look forward to reading the upcoming reports — but resigned themselves to the belief a long time ago that the state would come up empty-handed.

“I guess it’s kind of what I expected,” said Mr. Hisey, whose 12-year-old son Tanner has endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and is scheduled to keep receiving an intravenous solution of the anti-cancer drugs monthly until January.

“We had hoped for answers, but I don’t know if anybody [realistically] expected any,” Mr. Hisey, a Clyde supermarket manager, said. “It’s something different every day. Some days you’re mad, some days you’re sad. Other days, you’re skeptical.”

He said he will invariably wonder what the agencies missed, what stone could have been overturned.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s kind of what we expected,” Mr. Hisey said.

Mr. Brown, the Sandusky County administrator, lost his daughter Alexa to cancer in the summer of 2009 when she was 11.

He said the fight has moved on to federal legislation and increased funding from Washington aimed at unraveling the mysteries of childhood cancer nationwide.

“It shouldn’t have taken [the original study group of] 19 children, four of whom are now in heaven,” Mr. Brown said. “Children don’t get cancer as a normal course. Their hands are tied because there aren’t enough resources pointed in the right direction.”

Mr. Brown and his wife, Wendy, have made multiple trips to Washington to lobby federal officials for more support.

Those who have lent a sympathetic ear include U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green).

Last week, Mr. Brown called upon National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins to ramp up investigation of pediatric cancers while Mr. Collins testified before a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

“With advancements in modern medicine, no child deserves to have to fight for his or her life because of pediatric cancer. And no family should be left wondering if the community they live in is making their children sick,” Senator Brown said.

Emissions records

Although state health and environmental officials have said repeatedly they have no evidence that ties the unusually high incidence of cancer to any single business, Whirlpool Corp. recently approached The Blade with records showing its emissions being well within permitted levels.

The company said it had nothing to hide.

With 3,400 employees, Clyde’s Whirlpool plant is by far the city’s largest employer. It is the world’s largest manufacturer of washing machines, producing more than 20,000 a year.

Jeff Noel, a Whirlpool spokesman, acknowledged that because of its size, the facility is an easy target for innuendo, speculation, half-truths, and rumors.

Mr. Noel said the company wants a “fair shake” and an understanding of key points, such as an average release of 250 tons of volatile organic compounds into the air in recent years.

It is allowed by permit to discharge up to 460 tons a year.

Pollution decline

Robert J. Karwowski, Whirlpool environmental, health and safety director, said those classes of chemical releases have been on the decline with the company’s conversion to powder paints instead of spray paints.

Powder paints cling to metal with electro-magnetic force and are baked on the steel, resulting in far fewer air emissions than in the past, he said.

Last year’s releases of volatile organic compounds were down to 181 tons, Mr. Karwowski said.

Whirlpool dug up 621 tons of contaminated soil near the edge of its property during a major expansion in 1999, Mr. Noel said.

The company believes that soil was already polluted when Whirlpool acquired the land from the former Clyde Porcelain Steel in 1952.

Ohio EPA spokesman Dina Pierce and Mr. Indian of the state health department said there is no evidence that Clyde-area children ever came in contact with that soil, which is behind a security fence.

“There is no evidence of a completed pathway of exposure between Whirlpool and these folks,” Mr. Indian said.

During a tour of its facility last week, Mr. Karwowski explained how Whirlpool’s liquid waste is treated on site.

After solids are removed from water, the treated water goes to Clyde’s wastewater treatment plant across U.S. 20 for additional treatment.

Only that water that meets U.S. EPA requirements for publicly owned treatment plants is sent there, though, Mr. Karwowski said.

Whirlpool processes 250,000 gallons of wastewater a day, a fourth of Clyde’s total, he said.

The Ohio EPA’s investigation of the Clyde area includes a year’s worth of air sampling, extensive stream sampling, and record-checks of each source of drinking water, as well as an analysis of past air discharges.

Nothing jumped out.

Same goes for radiation testing state officials performed.

Air quality

“The air in Clyde is actually better than Toledo, Cleveland, and other parts of Ohio,” Ms. Pierce said.

“The contaminant levels we’re seeing are well within the health standards,” Ms. Pierce said

She said the Ohio EPA is “done with anything we’ve been asked to do by the Ohio Department of Health.”

Saddened father

Warren Brown is getting older. He said death is a natural process of aging.

What gnaws at him isn’t that elderly people are allowed to live.

It’s that he believes society’s values have become misplaced, possibly a result of considerable lobbying adults do for senior citizens while largely overlooking the need for more research into how and why kids get cancer.

“Old people are allowed to die. Kids are not,” Mr. Brown fumed. “You can quote me on that.”

Mr. Brown said the issue “boils down to a prioritization of resources.”

He said he believes society’s values have become too skewed — and that until that message resonates with more people, there will be more children — such as his daughter Alexa — dying long before their time.

He said he is pushing federal officials to pass legislation not only for more funding, but also for helping experts begin searching for clues before waiting until it’s too late.

Now, it’s a bureaucratic Catch-22. Agencies can’t devote a lot of resources to an area until enough people get cancer to make that study area statistically relevant.

Officials need that justification to begin their probes.

“It takes too … long to develop a cancer cluster,” Mr. Brown said, “and by the time the cluster develops, you’re two or three years down the road and whatever caused that cancer may be gone.”

In Clyde’s case, it “took too long to put feet on the ground and eyes on the problem,” he said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, or 419-724-6079.



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