Wed, Mar. 12, 2003
By Shashank Bengali
The Kansas City Star
The rumors have circulated in Herculaneum, Mo., for almost as long as the toxic smoke spewed by the century-old lead smelter on the edge of town.
Some residents blame fallout from the smelter for a variety of illnesses in their tiny Mississippi River community, including what some suspect are clusters of multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease.
Clusters are difficult to prove, and no research has established that toxins in the environment can trigger either of the two mysterious neurological diseases, whose causes elude scientists.
But a new federal health study might finally bring answers to Herculaneum, a working-class town of 2,800 people in Jefferson County, south of St. Louis.
In the next few weeks, researchers expect to begin a three-year effort to determine whether the two diseases are occurring at a higher-than-normal rate in Jefferson County and four other areas of the country near the sources of hazardous substances.
The study -- which includes sites in Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and Texas -- is funded by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Missouri's health department will conduct the Jefferson County study; its share of the federal grant is $300,000.
Joseph Malone, the physician helping lead the study, said work could begin later this month after final approval from the agency.
The study won't attempt to find what is causing the diseases -- "that requires a much more in-depth inquiry," Malone said -- but will establish the number of cases in the county by surveying residents, doctors, clinical workers and medical records.
If researchers find that the diseases are more prevalent in Jefferson County and the four other test areas, Malone said, it will bolster the theory that they are linked somehow to factors in the air, soil or water.
"There is a fair amount of uncertainty about these diseases," Malone said. "Many people think there might be environmental influences that trigger the reaction."
MS, which affects about 500,000 Americans, attacks nerve fibers that help in the transmission of information between the brain and spinal cord. Patients usually have a normal life span but suffer weakness, numbness, pain and loss of vision.
ALS is rarer, affecting six to eight Americans out of 100,000. Often fatal, it affects the nerve cells connecting the brain and skeletal muscles, impairing patients' ability to walk and talk, and eventually causing paralysis.
Some in Herculaneum said they were heartened that researchers planned to explore a problem that they had suspected for years.
Sheila McHawes, a lifelong resident of Herculaneum who lost her brother-in-law to ALS last year at age 41, said she knew of two dozen ALS sufferers living within 10 miles of her home.
"It's just really strange in this area, where we've been having that much trouble with (lead) contamination," said McHawes, 56.
But she is reluctant to blame the smelter.
"I don't know enough....I can't point a finger," she said.
Despite living in its shadow for more than a century, residents of Herculaneum have only recently learned the dangers of pollution from the nation's largest lead smelter, now owned by the St. Louis-based Doe Run Co. Tests in 2001 found elevated levels of lead in the bloodstreams of more than half the young children living closest to the smelter.
That prompted the state to declare a health emergency, and Doe Run to begin an extensive cleanup. The company also promised buyout offers to 160 homeowners living closest to the plant.
Lead in children has been linked to learning disabilities and impaired growth, and it is also believed to cause cancer and kidney disease. But scientists haven't fully explored a connection to MS or ALS.
In Missouri, physicians aren't required to report cases of either disease, so researchers will be forming a new body of medical information.
Denise Jordan-Izaguirre of the Kansas City office of the federal toxic substances agency said it was during the tests in 2001 that she first began to wonder about health problems in Herculaneum.
"We had heard from the county health department that, in their home care services, they were seeing a lot of cases of ALS and MS," she said.
Sharon Gacki, executive director of the ALS Association's St. Louis chapter, said it was too early to declare a cluster in Jefferson County.
"But anecdotally, it does seem to be suspicious," she said. "It would
make you kind of look and see if something is going on."
Copyright © 2003, Knight Ridder Inc