State public health officials try to find link between former airbase, cases of MS and Lou Gehrig's disease
Friday, February 21, 2003
By Patrick J. Cronin
Abington resident Dave Wilmot wants to know why so many people are getting sick in his neighborhood.
Wilmot was one of many residents who attended a meeting last Thursday at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station where a representative from the state Department of Public Health (DPH) came to discuss a Multiple Sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease study the state is conducting. The representative was also there to hear residents' concerns pertaining to the issue.
For Wilmot, the study will hopefully give clues as to why so many people are getting sick in towns surrounding the former airbase. Wilmot, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1998, believes contamination from the base may be the common denominator regarding why so many people have suffered from such ailments as Lou Gehrig's disease and Multiple Sclerosis in Abington, Hingham, Rockland and Weymouth.
Robert Knorr, deputy director of epidemiology for the DPH, said state officials are already in the process of a two-year study into rates of Multiple Sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease in the four communities surrounding the base. The study will also concentrate its efforts in Middleboro, where some residents have indicated they believe Lou Gehrig's disease is occurring at a higher rate than would be expected.
The DPH announced in November it received a $200,000 grant from the United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in order to conduct the study. Knorr said the goal of the study is to determine the number of Lou Gehrig's disease and Multiple Sclerosis cases diagnosed in the study and to compare the results with other communities between 1995 and 2002.
While one study cannot directly show cause and effect, Knorr said the results may give his agency some clues as to whether more studies should be conducted in the area. The state's study will be based on medical records, with permission from hospitals. Patients will not be contacted and their identities will be protected, said Knorr.
For Wilmot and other residents the study is a good beginning but they all say more studies need to be conducted before the Navy transfers land at the former air base to the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corporation. Both parties signed an agreement calling for the first transfer of land to take place in April. Several residents voiced concerns that a rapid transfer of land may cause more harm than good.
Wilmot said he wants to make sure the land being transferred is clean and he also wants the groundwater to be tested before anything is built there. Plans for the redevelopment of the 1,450-acre base include senior housing, offices, retail space and a golf course.
Instead of just waiting for the study to be completed, Wilmot said he has teamed up with other residents who are sick for the purpose of getting their message out to the public. The grassroots group has created a website, www.awares.com, which will allow other residents in the area that have health concerns to contact them.
"I was diagnosed with the auto-immune disease Multiple Sclerosis in 1998," said Wilmot. "At that time, I knew little about the disease, and hadn't thought at all about geography playing any role in its manifestation. Like anyone developing a disease with ready access to a computer, I began to look for answers on the Internet.
"My increased disability has me spending more and more time on the Internet. Our concerns in these neighborhoods are no different from concerns surrounding other military and industrial facilities. I contacted a scientist out west who was working on discovering the causes for a cluster of childhood leukemia outside the Fallon Nevada Naval Air Station in Nevada. They are still working on the answer, but they shared with me this; Initial lab tests with mice prove JP-8 jet fuel, a kerosene based fuel that the military introduced in the mid-90s, completely destroyed the animals' immune systems. Being a mammal suffering with an auto-immune disease, I couldn't help but take notice of this."
Rockland resident Liz Tomolillo is the other founder of the website. Tomolillo, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis two years ago, has been speaking out on the issue for the last five months. For Tommlillo, too many of her friends and neighbors are getting sick for no apparent reason and she wants to know what is causing this to happen.
"Before I started speaking out on this, I knew of eight people in the community with Multiple Sclerosis," said Tomolillo. "After I started doing interviews, I have received about 20 calls from residents who also have it. This is not a huge town and for this many people in the community to have it, there has to be a common denominator."
Tomolillo also started a Multiple Sclerosis support group for residents in Rockland, Abington and Weymouth.
"I want the group to stay vocal and active in order to get something done ," said Tomolillo. "I'm not saying we're going to find a cure but we can do a lot of good and help a lot of people. It's also going to be a support system."
Tomolillo said she started the group because there aren't that many support groups in the area for residents with Multiple Sclerosis.
While the exact cause of Multiple Sclerosis is unknown, most health officials believe it could be caused by genetics, gender, environmental triggers and other factors.
The news that she had the disease came as a shock for Tomolillo. After all, Multiple Sclerosis doesn't run in her family. Adding to the bad news was the unexplained illnesses of her husband Carl, who has an auto-immune disease. They are the parents of five children. Tomolillo noted while the disease is affecting her, it's not that bad yet.
"I have my good days and my bad days," said Tomolillo. "It gets worse over time. When I wake up, I have no problem going up and down stairs but by the night time I can barley make it."
Knorr said the study will be completed and released in Sept., 2004.
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