A third softball pitcher at Corinth High School in Upstate New York was stricken last week with the same strange illness -- including seizures and tics -- that felled two other pitchers at the school.
Like the first two, Corinth 9th grader Abby Matuszak collapsed unconscious. And like them, she's being told by medical experts that it's all in her head. That's the same diagnosis officials gave earlier this year to about 20 girls, many of them athletes, at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School in the western part of the state.
But the new case in Corinth strengthens the possibility that something environmental or infectious -- or a combination of both -- may be at work. While two softball pitchers (out of four) at the same school might be dismissed as a coincidence, albeit an unlikely one, three is an alarm bell. And several local sources told us the total number of students affected over the past two school years in Corinth is now six, including a sixth-grader active in cheerleading.
Abby's mother, Shannon Matuszak, says that after her daughter was taken by ambulance to a hospital last week, doctors dismissed her symptoms as psychological. She is now at home, missing classes she enjoys, games with her varsity field hockey team, Spirit Week activities and Homecoming -- all much-anticipated events for a ninth grader. She is currently suffering "only" three to four seizures a day, according to her mother, a psychiatric nurse.
“I told them, don’t you think it’s odd that six girls in the same school in a tiny small town are all going through the same thing and they walk through these doors and you tell them the exact same thing?" Shannon said. "Do you think that maybe they correlate with each other -- that three were pitchers? Maybe it’s nothing, but to me it’s a Big Maybe.”
The family found a doctor in Westchester County who has started Abby on antibiotics with a presumptive diagnosis of Lyme disease. They're hopeful her symptoms will continue clearing up and she'll be back in school soon.
Corinth Central School District Superintendent Daniel R. Starr did not respond to a request for comment.
Abby’s saga began last Wednesday, just two days after we reported on the cases of Alycia Nicholson and Lori Brownell, who began suffering similar symptoms last year when they were the junior varsity and varsity pitchers. Abby is the pitcher for the ninth-grade team playing on the same fields, and her mother said no one in her family was aware of our article.
Like Lori and Alycia, Abby experienced some symptoms in the weeks before the severe attack. Her legs cramped and her joints hurt. Her mother told her to eat bananas to replenish potassium depleted by exertion. Last Tuesday, Abby got a nasal flu vaccine.
On Wednesday, “What happened was she was in lunch, and she started having her peripheral vision going,” her mother said. “And she had a headache, and her hearing was off.” Her friends wanted her to go to the nurse, but, typically, she insisted on attending her next class, in math.
“Her friends in the class said she was staring off and very spacey, and then all of a sudden her desk was shaking from where she was writing, and then she just toppled over, she fell right out of her seat.”
During a 45-minute wait for an ambulance, she had eight more seizures, and continued to have them at the hospital in Glens Falls and after being transferred to Albany Medical Center. They ranged from 10 seconds to three minutes in length. “It took them a long time to rouse her when she got to the hospital. It took half an hour to wake her up. It wasn’t until probably an hour later that she was able to even speak.”
CORINTH, New York -- Lori Brownell’s teammates nicknamed her the Beast. She threw herself into every play last year on the girls’ softball team at Corinth High School, north of Albany. A star pitcher and all-around player, she dove for the ball and slid into base with bruising abandon – and has the jammed fingers, scrapes, and concussions to prove it.
Alycia Nicholson is no shrinking violet, either. She is an undefeated wrestler on the boys’ junior varsity wrestling team, and, like Lori, an ace softball pitcher. This past spring, after she moved up to the varsity, she hurled a two-hitter with eight strikeouts for one victory, and slammed a solo home run in another.
It is odd, then, that these two hardy teens were the only two students felled at the high school last year by a mystery illness that included fainting spells, tics, severe fatigue, joint pain, breathing problems, seizures, rashes, and other serious signs and symptoms.
And it’s even odder that both were subjected to claims in recent months that it was all, in effect, in their heads – that they suffered not from any physical illness but from a Freudian diagnosis of “conversion disorder,” in which some past trauma or emotional upheaval got converted unconsciously into physical symptoms. When this happens to more than one person in the same setting, it is called mass hysteria, or, to use the modern and less judgmental-sounding term, a mass psychogenic event.
Historically, hysteria has been associated with anxious, attention-seeking people, usually women. Across the state, a similar cluster of symptoms among a group of high-schoolers was dubbed, “cheerleader hysteria.” As a New York Times column by Caitlin Flanagan put it: “Most parents of adolescent girls will never have to contend with episodes of hysteria of the kind experienced by the cheerleaders. But anyone with a teenage daughter can attest that this is a time of emotional extremes and high drama, of girls who are one moment affectionate youngsters and the next screaming banshees.” (See our article, The Crazy History of Conversion Disorder)
The girls, and their families, don’t buy it. As Alycia, an attractive, self-contained young woman, said simply when we visited her home outside Corinth earlier this year: “Why would anyone do that to herself?”
It’s a great question, and one with no good answer. The likeliest explanation in both cases remains real illness, triggered by something in the environment, or by an infection, or by some unusual combination. But unwarranted medical and media skepticism, based on 19th-century psychiatric speculation, continues to stand in the way of understanding what really happened. While Alycia, now a junior, has returned to school and sports and has only minor residual problems, Lori – an outgoing, appealing and mature senior, eager to do volunteer work for the disabled -- cannot attend class or tolerate noisy or crowded situations, and continues to have disabling verbal and physical tics. A recent video captured her on a rare trip out, to Walmart, with a friend pushing her wheelchair.
Both girls were afflicted in 2011, Alycia near the end of the school year that May, when she collapsed, passed out, and went into convulsions on the pitcher’s mound at a junior varsity home game. Lori, the star varsity pitcher that year, passed out that August at a school dance, then again in October, with recurrent dizziness at school in between, followed by multiple symptoms that worsened dramatically.
Lori, used to being knocked down but not out, tried to carry on as usual, but a friend described the difficulties: “When she started to come back to school, she passed out almost every day. It killed me to see everyone just staring at her as the nurse came running down the hallway.”
The cases gained national attention early this year after a similar but larger cluster of about 18 girls developed tic disorders at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School near Rochester, 250 miles west of Corinth. In LeRoy, the state health department endorsed the diagnosis of conversion disorder, and school officials said there was no environmental or infectious cause for the illness. For that reason, health experts have declined even to investigate the Corinth cases, saying that by definition they could have nothing in common with LeRoy.
Although we have drawn no conclusions, there are several plausible physical suspects in Corinth – from infections to pesticides on playing fields – that should have been investigated more intensively and ruled out more persuasively before exotic mental diagnoses were even considered. Since the start of the school year two new tic cases have been reported in LeRoy, along with a third case that suddenly worsened. This, and rumblings of more cases in both locations and clusters in other states, suggest such factors could be a continuing threat. For that reason if no other, a close look at the Corinth cases makes sense.
When we visited, we found two strong, unified families facing their daughters’ mysterious illness with caring and determination. But when a reporter for The New York Times, Susan Dominus, visited the Nicholsons -- Randy Nicholson is an independent construction contractor and his wife, Heidi, is a stay-at-home mom to four kids -- it did not take her long to decide on a diagnosis. As she wrote on her Times blog:
“I drove to Corinth first and interviewed one of the two young women [Alycia] who were showing symptoms there. I’m not a neurologist or a psychiatrist, but it seemed likely to me after talking to her that anxiety was an issue, and that her symptoms seemed to get worse in situations when there was a lot of attention and concern focused on her and the other girl. I did not think that she was faking it, but that there was something psychological at play. It was not what I had expected, to be honest.”
The idea that a newspaper reporter would offer such a diagnosis after a brief visit, and make it public, upset Alycia and outraged her parents. So did the family’s subsequent visit to California to appear on The Doctors, a TV show. Randy Nicholson said the family participated on the understanding that the doctors would evaluate Alycia for PANDAS, a neurological condition that has been suggested as a cause of many of the LeRoy cases, but “when we arrived, the testing was changed to the most basic and general tests which would undoubtedly turn up nothing.”
The doctors then told her, on national TV, “You’ll be fine in no time.” Translation: Tut, tut little girl. Just calm down and you’ll get better. It’s all in your head. Says Randy: “That’s not it. There’s a lot more going on.”
“It’s like being in a horror movie,” Heidi Nicholson said of the repeated failure to find anything amiss with their daughter. “At Albany Medical Center, they told us they didn’t see anything wrong, so there was no further need to investigate it. It made us so angry because we couldn’t get anywhere, and she was sick all the time.”
By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
One Thursday last September, a crop-dusting plane swooped down over a cornfield in Western New York and dipped below the tree line, spraying an insecticide engineered to paralyze the nervous system of agricultural pests called earworms. After several passes, the plane climbed, banked sharply, and flew away.
The event, captured on this video by a local resident, is noteworthy for when and where it happened: on a school day, on a field adjoining LeRoy Junior-Senior High School in Western New York, where an outbreak of tic disorders among 18 students, mostly girls, would soon gain national attention. By then two girls had developed symptoms, according to the state Health Department – one in May 2011, the other earlier in September – but the bulk of the cases would follow, including two more the next week.
“This cornfield is adjacent to the school property and uphill from the school,” the neighbor who took the video wrote in an e-mail. “The fields in our area are dusted at least twice a year.”
The “dust” that settled that day is called Tundra. Its active ingredient, bifenthrin, has been linked at high doses in animal studies to some of the same symptoms experienced by the LeRoy students. U.S. regulators regard it as much safer than earlier generations of pesticides such as DDT, but it was banned in Europe until just last week due to environmental concerns.
Most of the LeRoy girls were diagnosed by a local neurology clinic with a psychiatric illness called conversion disorder, a finding the state Health Department endorsed despite the protests of parents who said their daughters were not emotionally disturbed. Several investigations, including one made public last month, found no evidence of environmental contamination.
In May 2011, a ban on all pesticide use on school grounds went into effect in New York State. But the investigators did not appear to consider the possibility of pesticide drift or runoff from neighboring property in the intensively farmed region, or test for currently used pesticides like bifenthrin – only ones banned decades ago. There is no evidence that the crop-dusting on September 22, or any other date, was part of any investigation. (Our inquiries to the school district and the environmental consulting firm have not yet been answered.)
The video, shot by Leroy Township resident Don Dessert from his nearby home, was sent in March to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. We obtained it last week through a Freedom of Information Law request, along with supporting documents. In an e-mail accompanying the video, Dessert wrote that it showed “a crop duster spraying the cornfield on the other side of the tree stand from my house.”
Dessert attached a fact sheet on agricultural practices for corn to illustrate “what part of the chemistry set is put on corn crops. Makes me want to find some organic corn …” He included a photo diagram showing his location in relation to the field and the school (click to enlarge photo):
Just below the cornfield in this photo looking south is a retention basin and the girls’ softball field. In some aerial photographs, including the one on the school’s Web site, the basin is full of water. The period between April and September of last year was the rainiest ever in Rochester and Buffalo, the two big cities to the east and west of Leroy.
As we wrote in February, “School officials who say environmental factors can’t be responsible for the outbreak of tics at the Junior/Senior High School might want to check last year’s record rainfalls – and the flood-prone ground right under their feet.
“Parts of the school grounds -- including athletic fields -- are right on top of a federally designated FEMA Flood Hazard Area. … The zone cuts right across the girls’ softball diamond.” (In this photo, north is toward the top of the frame, and the field that was sprayed September 22 is visible at the bottom.)
Officials told us then that the school’s pesticide log was examined as part of the initial investigation but, because no pesticides were applied on school grounds during the preceding year, pesticides were ruled out as a factor. (Pesticide use was banned on all public school grounds in the state as of May 18, 2011.)
The Department of Environmental Conservation’s internal notes obtained through the FOIA request show it ruled out the crop-dusting as a cause of the outbreak.
If you want to know what’s wrong with the diagnoses of “conversion disorder” and “mass psychogenic illness” recently given to high school girls with tic disorders in New York State, the place to start is not the rural villages of LeRoy and Corinth but the cosmopolitan metropolis of Vienna, Austria.
More than a century ago, Sigmund Freud treated a 17-year-old he called “Dora.” She had a cough, migraines, trouble talking, a weak left leg, depression, and other symptoms. After she passed out, her worried parents took her to Dr. Freud, a neurologist with a home office who was working on some interesting new ideas about unexplained illnesses. He was already treating Dora’s father.
Freud diagnosed Dora with “hysteria” – it was all in her head. She had unknowingly converted psychological stress into mental and physical symptoms, he believed. Based on his write-up of the case -- "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria ('Dora')" -- she became one of the best known of a dozen early cases that shaped the history of psychiatry.
Seventeen-year-old Thera Sanchez, and a dozen other girls who developed tics last year at LeRoy Junior/Senior High School, are in a sense Dora’s twenty-first century peers – teenagers suffering from a baffling disorder. In addition to the Tourette’s-like symptoms, Thera and the other girls repeatedly passed out, had trouble walking, and suffered from migraines, joint pain, rashes, breathing problems, and hair and weight loss.
The Buffalo neurology clinic that examined most of the girls and the state health department say they have “conversion disorder,” an updated but essentially identical diagnosis to Dora’s hysteria. Like Freud, the doctors didn’t find anything physically wrong with the girls in LeRoy, so they declared it must be psychological.
“We have conclusively ruled out any form of infection or communicable disease, and there’s no evidence of any environmental factor,” said Dr. Gregory Young of the New York Department of Health following a three-month investigation.
But in both Austria and New York, we believe, the doctors have misdiagnosed what is much more likely to be real physical illness that has nothing to do with stress or trauma. In Freud’s cases, the trigger was actually mercury poisoning from medicines that were in widespread use back then, a new idea we propose in detail in our book “The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic.” In New York, infections like strep or Lyme Disease, and/or environmental factors like toxic fungi or spills from gas wells on the school grounds, are the likeliest triggers for the illnesses.
What’s really sickening, though, is the use of this antiquated and unproven diagnosis in place of rigorous investigation and appropriate treatment.
Even though much of Freudian theory is now regarded as quaint, wrong-headed or downright destructive – blaming parents for serious biological illnesses like schizophrenia, for instance – hysteria and its successors have gotten the medical version of a hundred-year hall pass, reflecting the power of the psychiatric establishment to create its own version of reality.
To explain why – why Freud was wrong about hysteria and why today’s medical industry is making the same mistake and doing the same disservice to patients -- we need to take a trip back to a time and place not entirely unlike our own.
Vienna at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th was in the grip of cultural and political turbulence that created its own catchphrase, “fin de siecle,” or end of the century, usually followed by malaise or some other term denoting angst, uncertainty, upheaval. Amid the glitter of the ancien regime, the gears of the far-flung, polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire were gnashing loudly. A young man named Adolph Hitler had come to the capital from the hustings, nurturing deep resentments toward the wealthy and artistic, many of them (like Freud) Jewish.
As the white-hot glare of attention begins to pull away from the outbreak of tics among students at LeRoy Junior/Senior High School in Western New York, most medical and media sources appear to have settled on “conversion disorder” as their default diagnosis.
Newsweek acknowledged the families’ belief that something physical must be wrong, but the author insisted on “a very inconvenient truth: the cluster in Le Roy is, by all reasonable judgment, a mass hallucination. Aided by media of all sorts, what the girls are suffering from is perhaps the ultimate disease of our era.”
The New York Times, without bothering to name LeRoy, published an article titled “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl”: “Female adolescence is — universally — an emotionally and psychologically intense period. It is during this time that girls become aware of the emergence of womanhood, with both the great joy and promise that come with it, and also the threat of danger.” As evidence, the writer noted that a LeRoy cheerleader – not a linebacker – was one of the first stricken.
“Well, that’s the kind of nutty story that only happens once, or so I briefly thought,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan, “until more focused Googling quickly led me to an almost identical episode, this one in 2002, in a high school in rural North Carolina. Once again, a cheerleader was first to manifest the strange symptoms, and once again other girls, some of them cheerleaders, were struck with the same condition.”
Though the writer is a woman, the supposed susceptibility of peppy, excitable female cheerleaders versus stolid, masculine football players is Freudian paternalism dressed up for a new century – a misogynist’s dream. (It was our skepticism of conversion disorder that drew us to this story, having addressed it in a chapter titled “The Age of Hysteria” in our book; we will have more to say about its shaky foundations in upcoming articles.)
Responding to community pressure, the LeRoy school district has grudgingly commissioned a new round of environmental tests while asserting “the school is safe,” a balancing act that left many in the community dissatisfied. (The school board this week approved the new tests, expected to cost as much as $75,000. Some parents and environmental groups are pushing for broader tests than are so far planned. ) Local TV stations have stopped airing videos that show the girls’ tics, concerned that might spawn more “psychogenic” cases. The neurologist in Buffalo who originally diagnosed conversion disorder has become more emphatic about the diagnosis, even as four more cases arose in the past week in and around LeRoy. He hints darkly that some of the girls have had such awful experiences that, if only we knew, we would understand – pinning responsibility on the families as well as the victims’ own psyches.
The National Institutes of Health offered to evaluate the students (about 15 total at the school, possibly including one boy) for PANDAS – an autoimmune neurological reaction to strep infection. But it is downplaying the idea in advance. The lead NIH researcher who coined the term told a local news site that simultaneous outbreaks among adolescent girls would be unprecedented and unlikely.
That appears to leave only the girls, their parents and a small corps of advocates – Erin Brokovich’s group, environmental and school safety activists, a doctor who found evidence of strep infection in most of the girls – to push for continued attention to physical causes.
Based on our own reporting and analysis, they are correct to do so. Real illness remains the likeliest explanation with the suggestion that these dramatic symptoms are provoked by stress a convenient excuse for avoiding a rigorous investigation of environmental risk factors . Here are six possible risks that need to be raised, followed by a key question that needs to be answered:
Mycotoxins on playing fields?
In any inquiry into a novel medical condition, identifying significant changes in the environment is a priority. In LeRoy, as we’ve reported, several new factors converged in May 2011, when the first girl was affected there, according to a report from the New York State health department.
That month, a statewide ban against pesticides – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides -- took effect for every school in the state. The ban coincided with the rainiest spring ever in Buffalo and the second rainiest in Rochester – LeRoy is located between them -- followed by more downpours in late summer. One of the warmest winters on record has followed.
The school district confirmed last week that it “has not applied pesticides to any of the high school athletic fields since September 2010.”
That month, a product called Turf Herbicide was “used to spray broadleaf weeds on varsity football and soccer field.” In summer 2009, Roundup Weed killer was used in mulch beds, but not in 2010. (The law banning pesticides was passed in April 2010 and may have affected spraying that summer.)
This probably explains the orange substance that cropped up on playing fields at the school last year – so thick that it coated students’ shoes and clothes, so widespread some thought it was pesticide sprayed from an airplane. Officials said it was a harmless grass fungus called rust. Ironically, these fungal outbeaks may point to a counterintuitive new development: the complete and sudden absence of pesticides on school grounds.
Based on that and a history of flooding and water problems at the school, which is partly sited on a FEMA flood hazard area and wetlands, we speculated that harmful metabolites of a fungus – otherwise known as a mycotoxin -- might also have gained a foothold. One possibility: ergot alkaloids, toxic products of fungi that can grow on rye and other grasses. We told the story of a man in the village of Bath, about 70 miles from LeRoy, who developed similar symptoms last September. He lives next to a field that was planted last summer in ryegrass and not harvested, adjacent to a swamp and a levee. He draws his water from a well in the back yard.
In December, the school district tested several places inside the school for mold spores and found none, although they did not do “destructive” tests – cutting open walls and the like – to look for hidden sources. Many experts say that it is the only way to completely rule out mold. They also did one test of the air outside the building – location not given – as a “control” to see if inside readings were higher.
One negative test was for a fungus called a. fumigatus, which can produce ergot alkaloids. A June 2005 study in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found, according to its title, “Abundant Respirable Ergot Alkaloids From the Common Airborne Fungus Aspergillus Fumigatus.”
“Ergot alkaloids are mycotoxins that interact with several monoamine receptors, negatively affecting cardiovascular, nervous, reproductive, and immune systems of exposed humans and animals,” the report said. The alkaloids develop in especially high quantities on maize (corn) and latex paint, according to the study. In a comparison chart, ergot alkaloid production was far higher in latex paint than in any other medium.
That is intriguing because one substance the LeRoy school sprays annually on its grounds is white latex paint, to create the lines that mark playing fields. In the buildings and grounds report, the district said it has used Super Stripe Athletic Paint and Field Marking Paint, two latex brands, every year including 2011.
That might offer an alternative explanation for the Cheerleader Syndrome others have noted. Simply put, cheerleaders spend their time on the sidelines. (And they wear fewer clothes than running backs.) At LeRoy, four of the first 12 girls affected were cheerleaders and two were soccer players, according to the state health department report. In the 2002 North Carolina cluster cited in the Times article, five of the 10 students were current or former cheerleaders.
LEROY, N.Y., February 6 -- Last year, during the wettest spring ever recorded across large swaths of New York state, a little-noticed law took effect: As of May 18, pesticide use was banned from the grounds of every school in the state. That same month, a girl at the junior/senior high school here, and another at a high school near Albany, developed a mysterious tic disorder. The total number of cases in LeRoy has now risen to 15.
This convergence adds a new possibility to the list of suspects already being scrutinized in this picturesque Western New York village of 4,400, suspects that range from a 1970 train derailment that spewed toxic chemicals, to an autoimmune disorder called PANDAS, to leaks from gas wells on school grounds that may or may not have employed “fracking." The new possibility: Poisoning from a fungus that grows on a grass commonly planted on school grounds.
The fungus is called ergot, and it can grow when ryegrass – used on most athletic playing fields – sprouts a floweret that gets infected. That most often happens during wet spring months and on low-lying or marshy areas. (This photo was taken on school grounds last week.)
Two other tic cases have been reported in girls who attend Corinth High School, north of Albany. Both are members of the school softball team; the first girl collapsed unconscious in May during the first inning of a softball game and began twitching and convulsing, according to the Albany Times-Union; in LeRoy, at least 6 of the first 12 cases were among athletically active girls – four cheerleaders and two members of the soccer team.
And as we have reported, a 35-year-old man in the village of Bath, about 70 miles from LeRoy, was stricken with the same symptoms in September. He lives close to a field that was planted last spring in rye and not harvested; there is a swamp and a levee nearby; and his water comes from a well in his yard. (This is a photo of the swamp.)
In Corinth, the first girl was affected in May; according to a report from the New York State Department of Health released Friday, the first case in LeRoy was also in May, followed by three more cases in weeks that began in September, two cases in October, one case in November, and one case in December. The state report dismissed environmental or infectious factors and embraced the official diagnosis of “conversion disorder,” in which stress or trauma are subconsciously converted into physical symptoms (several cases at once is called “a mass psychogenic event”).
BATH, N.Y., February 3 – “I’ve always been a fighter,” Bryan Tremblay says, and that’s not just a metaphor. Now 35 but still a slight 112 pounds at 5 foot 1, he was a bully magnet as a child and learned early to defend himself. That was an advantage when he wrestled for his high school team.
But now Tremblay, who lives in the Steuben County village of Bath in the Finger Lakes region, is battling a demon he can’t control. Since September, he’s suffered from a major tic disorder. It goes on, unpredictably, for hours a day. Even on three heavy-duty medicines, he has seizure-like episodes that leave him sitting dazed for half an hour.
The disorder keeps him at home. It makes it hard to study for his online degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh – and well-nigh impossible to look for work after being laid off early last year from his job at a furniture factory. It creates inevitable fears for his health, his wife, his future.
“It’s so frustrating,” he says. “I just want an answer to what I’ve got.”
Whatever Bryan Tremblay’s got is remarkably similar to the tic-like illnesses that have afflicted 15 students at LeRoy Junior/Senior High School about 70 miles away. Many of the LeRoy students, all but one a girl, came down with the disorder about the same time Tremblay did (he didn’t hear about that until much later). Most were diagnosed with “conversion disorder,” and since so many cases were involved, medical experts have declared it a “mass psychogenic event,” in which stress or trauma is supposedly converted unconsciously into physical symptoms and spreads among affinity groups. School and state health officials say they’ve ruled out environmental or infectious causes and insisted again on Wednesday that the school the girls attend “is safe.”
No one is suggesting conversion disorder in Tremblay’s illness. No one he knows has anything like it. Extensive neurological workups have turned up nothing. He’s due for another follow-up in a couple of weeks at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Tremblay doesn’t drink or use prescription or recreational drugs, nor has he been to LeRoy.
He is no publicity seeker. His sister mentioned his situation in a comment on a story we wrote about LeRoy. She gave us his contact information when we asked, and we reached out to Tremblay.
In an e-mail, he responded: “The symptoms seemed to appear almost out of thin air. It started with uncontrollable body spasms and convulsions in my mid to upper body area. These convulsions lasted from approximately 15 minutes to a 30 minute span.
“Soon the spasms started moving to my head and neck area and the movement was similar to a strong neck-whip similar to that of whiplash, sharp and strong and completely random. I did seem to notice that the amount of stress was a factor in the strength of the tics. The problem is the stress level increases once it starts and the tics become stronger and increase as well.
“I noticed that after five months the tics have become vocal, more yelling and humming with points of time where I repeat noises over and over. I find myself spacing out for large amounts of time and daydreaming with difficulty recovering.
“I have also started hand and arm movements.”
In almost every way, Tremblay’s life circumstances could not be more different from the LeRoy cases. But one common factor was evident during a visit – water. Water everywhere. Tremblay lives in a low-lying area. His house backs up to a levee less than a football field’s length behind his house.
LEROY, N.Y., February 2 – School officials who say environmental factors can’t be responsible for the outbreak of tics at the Junior/Senior High School might want to check last year’s record rainfalls – and the flood-prone ground right under their feet.
The tics broke out after an unusual pattern of heavy rain, followed by a mild winter that has kept the ground from freezing and left lots of standing water at Leroy Junior/Senior High School.
That should be no surprise. Part of the school grounds -- including athletic fields -- are right on top of a federally designated FEMA Flood Hazard Area. While a county official told us that the school itself sits on a slope just above the hazard area, the zone cuts right across the girls’ softball diamond, as well as the football/track field and another, larger baseball field.
In fact, we’ve been told by local residents that some fields, including the girls’ softball field just built in 2009, had to be dug up and rebuilt within the last year because the ground was so wet. The building itself has not escaped water and structural woes – the gym could not be used when the school was first opened a few years back because the floor buckled and sank, and the opening of school was delayed one year for a week by flooding, according to a former student.
School officials won’t comment, but Superintendent Kim M. Cox issued a new statement Wednesday, mostly blasting national press attention and the involvement of famed advocate Erin Brockovich, who has cited a train derailment of hazardous material a few miles from town in 1970 as a likely cause. Cox said new tests have shown drinking water inside the school – which comes from neighboring Monroe County – is safe.
Citing state and federal experts, she said: “All of these agencies and professionals from these agencies have assured us that our school is safe. There is no evidence of an environmental or infectious cause. Environmental causes would not discriminate. We would see a wide range of people affected.”
But no one seems to be looking up at the sky or down at the ground. LeRoy, like other New York state and Northeastern U.S. locations, has seen an epic amount of rain during the past 12 months. We put this chart together to show 2011 rainfall versus normal amounts in Buffalo and Rochester. LeRoy is located between them.
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.
The school where 12 girls developed tics attributed to "conversion disorder" has a history of water and structural problems, and an outbreak of rashes and sores occurred among students playing sports on land where the school is now sitting, according to a student who went there.
"When we first started we couldn't go to gym class because the floor kept sinking and cracking," said the student, who attended the new LeRoy Junior/Senior High School in 2005, its first year of operation. She was one of several people who described the site as a "swamp."
One year, students had to start a week late because of flooding inside the building, she said.
Before the current school -- which goes from eighth to twelfth grades -- was built, the site was used for student playing fields; the school itself was at another location. The new building sits directly atop those playing fields.
In the 1970s, students using those fields suffered from open sores that would not heal and rashes, said the former student, whose mother also went there and recalled the incident. The soil was tested, the cause was found, the students were treated and recovered. She did not know what the tests had shown.
This student expressed surprise that two consultant reports commissioned by the district, which found no problems with indoor air quality or toxins in the school building, stated: "No history of building water damage or site contamination was found."
She is not alone. On a Facebook site set up to support the students, one commenter wrote: "I read the environmental report and it seems like the testing wasn't very thorough. ... Correct me if I am wrong but wasn't the school partially underwater when it was first built? And how about soil testing. It seems like that would be included in thorough environmental testing? These girls deserve some answers. Praying for all of them and hoping we all get some answers soon."
Last week, I reported that except for checking a log of pesticide spraying, there is no evidence the consultants considered toxins in the schoolyard or on playing fields. Yet the symptoms occurred during mild weather when students would have been outside, and the school grounds are surrounded by intensively farmed land from which chemicals could conceivably have seeped or drifted.
The school is required to keep annual pesticide logs that were reviewed by the consulting firm, and therefore pesticides were ruled out. As best I could determine, that’s as far as it went.
The former student told me that some outside areas are used exclusively by girls, including a softball diamond.
Conversion disorder is a psychogenic diagnosis that means a psychological issue, such as stress or trauma, is converted unconsciously into physical symptoms. Several parents and affected students say they don’t accept that explanation. According to press reports, they have lost confidence in the Buffalo clinic that made the diagnosis and are now seeking other doctors to examine their children; the Buffalo clinic has reportedly now offered to conduct more tests.
One press report says the total number of students affected has reached 16 and includes one boy.
Neither the district nor the consulting firm it hired would talk to me about the issue.
On Friday, Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, told me, "The school is safe. The environment or an infection is not the cause of the students’ tics. There are many causes of tics-like symptoms. Stress can often worsen tic-like symptoms.
“All of the affected students have been evaluated and some have shown signs of improvement. Vaccines (Gardasil) have been ruled out."
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 severe side effects of an antimalaria drug given to U.S. soldiers won Best Wire Service Reporting from the National Mental Health Association.
Health experts say they’ve eliminated every possible environmental and infectious cause for the “tics” afflicting 12 girls at LeRoy Junior/Senior High School in New York state. They’ve scoured the building for mold and carbon monoxide (nothing, they say), considered illnesses that might cause the symptom (none), even checked on vaccinations (not all girls had the same shot).
However thorough that workup may have been, it seems to have stopped at the schoolhouse Exit sign. Except for checking a log of pesticide spraying, there is no evidence they considered toxins in the schoolyard or on playing fields. Yet the symptoms occurred during mild weather when students would have been outside, and the school grounds are surrounded by intensively farmed land from which chemicals could conceivably have seeped or drifted.
The school is required to keep annual pesticide logs that were reviewed by a consulting firm looking into environmental factors, and therefore pesticides were ruled out. As best I can determine, that’s as far as it went.
That may not be far enough, given that parents and some of the students involved don’t accept the psychogenic diagnosis they have been given, and that a number of Web commentators familiar with the school have raised concerns about the grounds and how the relatively new building is sited.
Public health officials remain adamant that the case is closed.
"The LeRoy school is safe,” Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, replied Friday after I raised the issue in a telephone call. “The environment or an infection is not the cause of the students’ tics. There are many causes of tics-like symptoms. Stress can often worsen tic-like symptoms.
“All of the affected students have been evaluated and some have shown signs of improvement. Vaccines (Gardasil) have been ruled out."
While the department has been careful for privacy reasons to avoid naming the illness, a doctor treating the girls has now gone public, with their permission, by calling it “conversion disorder.” Known less gingerly as mass hysteria, the diagnosis is rooted in 19th century Freudian psychology: Stress or trauma is subconsciously transformed into physical symptoms that can occur in several people at the same time.
In part because the LeRoy diagnosis took months to emerge, and in part because many people – including parents and affected children – find conversion disorder a suspect explanation, multiple theories continue to arise. Those include concerns about the school building and grounds, expressed in online comments:
-- An environmental study “would be the first logical step, knowing that the school was built in a swamp and that a number of classrooms were underwater the first year as well as the gym you would think it would be the first thing the school would address- even if only to disprove it.”
-- “Girls started feeling sick in September, sounds like pesticide spraying At the end of summer before the fall to protect late crops.” (The girls’ symptoms began as early as September 10, according to published accounts.)
-- “Have the doctors considered that the condition may be related to the school's having been built on swampy land? Water in the building continues to be a problem. A second story that should be pursued by the press and others is why this new school was built and why it was built on this particular piece of land.”
A quick look look at Google Earth (click the plus sign to see the school and grounds in detail) shows the setting. The high school’s Web site has an aerial photo that appears to show a large pool of standing water close to the school, with a rivulet coming even closer; it appears to be dry in the Google photo.
Farming, despite its idyllic image in American lore, is a highly chemical-intensive practice, and Western New York is no exception. For that and other reasons, it can be dangerous. In October, a few miles west of LeRoy in Genesee County, two people became ill when a pesticide being applied to a potato field wafted in their direction. The substance was a toxic fumigant being injected into the soil in preparation for planting this year’s crop. Officials said humidity might have helped spread it.
Obviously, that incident had nothing to do with the LeRoy illnesses, but it does give a sense of time and place missing in accounts of the area, as well as suggesting weather is an unpredictable vector.
But in such a scenario, why would only girls be affected? That's unclear, but there are a number of possibilities that environmental triggers could help explain. For instance, in some cases of mass illness in high schools, the victims were male football players and the problems were traced to toxins where they played. Being male was not a susceptibility factor, but it pointed to the exposure nonetheless. (In another case, marching band members suffered the same problem for the same reason.)
It is possible that more has been done to consider toxins outside the school building, but if so nothing has been done to communicate it to the national media.
In fact, opportunities continue to be missed. The two consultant reports and the school district’s official statement make no mention of looking for anything amiss outside the building itself ,except to note the water supply comes from neighboring Monroe County's public system. "No history of building water damage or site contamination was found," it states.
Neither the district nor the consulting firm it hired would talk to me Friday when I told them I was seeking information on whether risks outside the school building had been investigated.
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 Epidemic,” published by Thomas Dunne Books.
By Teresa Conrick
I have a teen daughter very affected with vocal tics, OCD, enuresis, estrogen-related seizures and a significant past history of streptococcus infections as well as numerous viral illnesses. Her diagnosis in 1995 - AUTISM - and additionally in 2011 - an autoimmune diagnosis - based on two positive results for antinuclear antibodies. Armed with that knowledge, I was lured to an article this week called, Le Roy Parents Want Answers about Mysterious Illness . I was shocked to read a horrific account of twelve high school girls, all from the same school, who had each begun to have severe symptoms similar to Tourette's syndrome, with tics and verbal outbursts. These are familiar symptoms to me and for any parent who has a child who regressed into an immune or autoimmune disease.
I have researched and done much reading about Autism and also P.A.N.D.A.S. (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatic Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) because both seem to be related to Megan and to each other, as the immune system seems to be a big, common denominator. Seeing a story that describes previously healthy teens, teen girls, become so ill with movement and vocal tics, should alarm everyone. The many articles on this story offer bits and pieces of clues as we all read it is "a mystery:" Autism and P.A.N.D.A.S. used to be mysteries but over the years, many parents have reported that regression into each often came about due to vaccination or acute illness from bacterial or viral infections. Streptococcus bacteria also known as "Strep Throat" for many, has been implicated often for P.A.N.D.A.S. but parents are also seeing regression and further exacerbation with other infections, such as Lyme (Borrelia bacterium) and Pneumonia ( Mycoplasma pneumonia). Are we seeing a rise in these immune-mediated diseases over the past years of increased vaccinations?
These are some facts:
1- A mysterious disorder which exhibits symptoms similar to Tourette's Syndrome has affected twelve female students at the same high school in LeRoy, NY.
2- Tourette's Syndrome is a neurological disorder defined by involuntary motor and vocal tics.
3- The New York State Department of Health says since September, 12 girls in Le Roy suddenly developed tics. Some are so bad, they had to be pulled out of school and tutored at home.