Best of AofA: Tics and Toxins Just Before Mystery Illnesses Hit Leroy NY, School Built New Playing Fields
Note: Throughout the month we are reprising some of our series. Below is the 3rd part of Dan Olmsted's Tics and Toxins series from 2012, which followed an outbreak of illness among high school aged females in LeRoy, NY.
By Dan Olmsted
LEROY, N.Y., January 30 -- New playing fields, including one for girls' softball, were completed the year before the outbreak of tics and other ailments began afflicting girls at Leroy Junior/Senior High School.
The 2010 photo shows the completed fields, here:
The smaller field to the immediate left of the school is the girls' softball field, according to a former student at the school. All but one of the students affected so far are girls. There are unconfirmed reports that one boy was also stricken.
School officials said earlier this month that two reports they commissioned of indoor air quality and mold had ruled out any environmental cause. New York Health Department officials concurred and a spokesman told me last week, "The school is safe." Most of the girls were diagnosed at a Buffalo neurological clinic with "conversion disorder," in which psychological stress or trauma is supposedly converted into physical symptoms that clusters of people can display at the same time.
But parents and the girls themselves have rejected that diagnosis, and other theories have been advanced; school officials now say they are ordering another round of tests. I reported last week that the first testing did not include any outside areas of the school grounds, except for reviewing school pesticide logs. Because those logs were in order, environmental factors outside the school building were ruled out. State health officials also say no infectious agent was involved.
But in any investigation of a new illness, the question of what's new in the environment -- from medicines a person is taking, to places they have been, to changes in where and how they live -- needs to be ruled out first.
Building ballfields within the past two years certainly qualifies as new. That could hypothetically create new risks, either from stirring up toxins such as pesticides on the site, or importing materials such as fill or sod that was previously contaminated. New attention has been given to a railroad derailment several miles away in 1970 that spilled both cyanide and TCE, a highly toxic manufacturing agent. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich has suggested that the school site was contaminated by runoff from that incident, or that dirt from that area was used to construct the school in the early 2000s.
Before the school was built, there were playing fields for students adjacent to the new building. I reported last week that a former student said athletes using those fields in the 1970s succumbed to a mysterious outbreak of sores and rashes. Soil was tested, the cause identified and students successfully treated, She said, though, that she did not know what the results showed.
School officials have refused to speak with me, but the father of one girl attending the school told me today that at a school event Saturday, students were told not to drink water, and to leave the building as soon as the activity was over.
The site on which the school is built was purchased in 2000 from residents living nearby who sold off part of their land. It appears to have been used for farming, as this Infrared photograph from 1995 shows. The greener vertical rectangular strip in the center of the field looks like boggy land. The girls' softball field appears to have been built on the upper portion of that strip.
This 2008 photo shows the school, before the two ballfields to the left of it were built. The dark kidney shaped patch just to the left of the school appears to be the remnants of the bog from its days as farmland.
David Lewis, who was one of the EPA's top experts on biodegredation of toxic chemicals, looked at the two environmental reports prepared for the school district and told me: "Building a school over a drained swamp always presents a potential for problems down the road of the kind that the school is experiencing. Unless you know what chemicals were sprayed or dumped on the surrounding land that drained into the swamp, you don't know what to look for.
"If the problem is caused by toxic chemicals, which are only partially degraded, it would take a major research study to figure it out. About all you do know is that the kinds of tests the consultants performed wouldn't pick up this kind of problem."
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of "The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Disorder." He has been an editor and reporter at USA Today and United Press International, where his investigation of catastrophic side effects of an antimalaria drug given to U.S. soldiers won Best Wire Service Reporting from the National Mental Health Association.