September 1, 2002, Sunday
By Sandy Coleman, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe
Rockland resident Elizabeth Tomolillo, 46, says she seldom got sick and had been hospitalized only for the births of her five children. So when numbness in her in fingers led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis two years ago, she was shocked. But after she began talking to her neighbors near the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, shock turned to alarm.
"My neighbor two doors up has [multiple sclerosis]. One neighbor two doors farther up has it. . . . I met someone at the eye doctor one day and found out that she lives on a street near the base. She has it," said Tomolillo, who has lived on Spruce Street for 17 years with her husband and children, who are between the ages of 9 and 23. "That's just bizarre." Worries about possible disease clusters are not new to area residents who have been working with the state Department of Public Health for six years, trying to discover whether the incidence of cancer and chronic diseases is higher than normal in Rockland, Abington and Hingham - towns surrounding the naval station - and in Weymouth. And if more people are getting sick, is there is a common cause?
The concerns are compelling enough for state officials to keep looking for answers. In a new attempt to find out whether there is a higher than normal number of multiple sclerosis cases as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) in the area, the Public Health Department recently applied for a grant to conduct studies into the issue. The department is seeking $120,000 from the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, based in Atlanta. State health department officials hope to receive an answer by Oct. 1, when the new federal fiscal year begins.
Earlier this year, Department of Public Health officials released results of a five-year study that did not find evidence of abnormally high cancer rates in the area. But the study did show an elevated rate of lung cancer in Weymouth, Abington and Rockland, indicating that more studies need to be done to determine whether the cases are related or can be attributed to a common source. The report was based on a review of 17 years of health records.
The grant money would be used to study multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease in the four towns surrounding the naval base, a former aviation training and aircraft support facility, and in Middleborough, which is the site of several state Superfund hazardous waste sites, said Suzanne Condon, assistant commissioner for environmental health.
"The fund will help us answer questions," Condon said. "Middleborough has reported to us that they have slightly more than two dozen cases of people with Lou Gehrig's disease that are current or former residents, and there are two state identified hazardous waste sites in the area. What is the contribution of the exposure of metals as related to the Lou Gehrig's disease?"
The study would determine the number of diagnosed cases and break them down by race, age and sex. It would also estimate prevalence rates based on geographic location and compare them to rates in other communities. The goal would be to determine whether a potential relationship exists between living in or near a hazardous waste site and the rates of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and multiple sclerosis. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive, fatal neuromuscular disease and its cause is unknown. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system.
Condon recently met with residents and town officials in Rockland to discuss the grant and update the community on a health assessment of Weymouth residents and 1,000 people living in nearby towns, performed by Weymouth health officials.
For Rockland Selectwoman Mary Parsons, a study of multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease would be welcome. She keeps a list of local people who have one of the illnesses. "One, two, three . . . 10," she said, reading through the list. "They're all within a short span of area. They're all next to the base.
"The reason we asked [DPH] to look into this is because there was a high level of cancer. This neighborhood fits into the arm of the base. The exhausts face our neighborhood. You could hear the whine of the jet engines, you could smell the jet fuel," said Parsons.
"The more information you have, the more chance they get to study it, the more they get to figure out what causes it."
Dave Wilmot is on Parsons' list. He lives in Abington, near the Rockland line. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Two friends who live in South Weymouth near the base also have the disease, he said.
Since developing the disease, which is starting to interfere with his ability to walk, Wilmot said, he has become obsessed with researching the diseases. "I just know there is a geographical cause for MS and I believe with all my heart there is an environmental factor," he said.
But Middleborough's town manager and health agent, Jack Healey, said he has his doubts about what new information a study of old health cases can offer.
"I'm not so sure that spending a huge amount of money on epidemiological
study to reconstruct history and to come up with no more than what we already
have - and that is there are some suspicions that it might have been from
these businesses - is a good idea," said Healey, who has been town manager
for 17 years. "I'd rather see the money used to do direct research on living
people with the disease. . . . It has more promise of coming up with a
treatment or a cure."
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company