Tics and Toxins: Pesticide Ban, Rainfall Could Point to Poisonous Fungus as Factor in Student Outbreaks
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”).
The report was released a day ahead of a community meeting Saturday at the high school, but did little to assuage community concerns.
At the meeting, Superintendent Kim Cox attempted to reassure parents that the school is safe, even as she said more environmental testing would be done on air quality. Some residents, including parents of stricken girls, said the school had not done enough to rule out environmental hazards on the school grounds.
In response to a question about an orange colored substance that has oozed out of the ground and gotten on some students’ shoes and clothing, officials described it as a “harmless” and “nontoxic” rust fungus that grows on grasses.
Our attention to the possibility of ergot poisoning evolved from a discussion with Bryan Tremblay, the man in Bath, about 70 miles away from LeRoy, who was struck in September with a similar affliction. The farm field behind his house, normally planted with corn, was planted in rye last spring, left to lie fallow, and not harvested this fall. His water came from a well in his backyard.
As we walked across the field, Tremblay, a history buff, remarked that some historians believe the women accused in the Salem witch trials may actually have been victims of ergot poisoning. That made us curious and we decided to look deeper. We learned:
--Ergot poisoning, or ergotism, is caused by toxic excretions from a common fungus
--The so-called ergot fungi (any species from the genus claviceps) that cause ergotism grow most commonly on rye and ryegrasses
--Ryegrass is widely used on school athletic fields
--When ergot fungi infect a plant, they produce a growth called a sclerotium that contains spores as well as toxic alkaloid compounds
--When eaten, these toxic alkaloids are known to produce severe neurological symptoms, including twitches, seizures, headaches and trouble walking
--The onset of spring and rainy weather causes the sclerotium to germinate, release its spores and spread the ergot infection to other grasses
--In especially rainy conditions, these sclerotia can be infected by another type of fungus called rust
--One common type of rust known to infect ergot fungi, fusarium, can take on an orange color
--The sclerotium of an ergot fungus, although typically not orange, can appear in many colors as well
So when school officials dismiss the orange substance on the school grounds as a “a form of nontoxic rust fungi,” they may be overlooking an important clue to a potentially toxic exposure. Alternatively, infected ryegrass could be located elsewhere at the school, including the marshy areas we’ve described, or rye could be grown on nearby farm fields.
The law that banned all pesticide use at schools was passed in 2010. It took effect that year for daycare sites, and in May 2011 for schools statewide. As summarized in a Cornell University publication: “Pesticides are substances intended to prevent, destroy, repel or mitigate pests and any substance or mixture of substances intended as a plant growth regulator, defoliant or desiccant. They include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and plant growth regulators. All are banned by this law for use on grounds at schools …”
Pesticide logs we obtained from the LeRoy Central School District under a Freedom of Information request show the only pesticides applied at the school last year were ant and wasp sprays from a can, allowed under the new law.
Because school officials have declined to talk to us, permitted no independent testing, and released no results of any tests outside the school building, there is much we don’t know. We don’t know if ryegrass is actually used at the school (it would be unusual if it were not). We don’t know if a harmful fungus actually developed in the grass. We don’t know how students might have been exposed or why only girls appear to be affected. We haven’t found any reports in the medical literature of ergot poisoning from contact with ryegrass at a school.
We also don’t know if there is evidence for the school’s assurance that the orange ooze is “harmless.” The matter is not mentioned in the state report Friday, though it did describe tests of water inside the building and at the junction connecting it to the Monroe County water supply that serves the village (the water is safe, according to the tests). In fact, there is still no evidence that officials have tested anything at all on the school grounds.
At the Saturday meeting, residents pressed for soil testing, but officials said they first wanted to retest air. It could take three weeks to do that and receive results; residents wanted to know why soil testing couldn’t begin now.
As we’ve reported, epic rains occurred in New York state last year, including the wettest spring on record in Buffalo and the second-wettest in Rochester (LeRoy is located between the two). Albany, which is near Corinth, and Binghamton, near Bath, also had massive downpours in 2011 including rainfall from Hurricanes Irene and Lee.
Another LeRoy resident has come forward to say she also developed severe tics in October that were also diagnosed as conversion disorder. The woman, Marge Fitzsimmons, 36, has no connection to the school. Her address puts her home next to a farm field in the Town of LeRoy just outside the village, with a small creek apparently on the other side of the property. The LeRoy school is also just outside the village boundary.
Famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich stirred controversy a week ago when she sent a representative, accompanied by media, to the school to attempt to take soil samples from playing fields. School officials called the event a publicity stunt and “criminal,” had him escorted off school grounds, and then padlocked gates to the playing fields. If you were at the bar last week at Larry’s Steak House in nearby Batavia, the Genesee County seat, you would have heard complaints about Brokovich but also suspicions about why the school district wouldn’t welcome outside help – often from the same person.
Brockovich and others have pointed to a train derailment a few miles from the school in 1970 as a likely cause of the outbreak. The derailment spewed cyanide and a toxic manufacturing chemical called TCE into the ground. Officials acknowledge that gravel from a quarry near the derailment was used as fill at the school but say it is not toxic.
Recent attention has focused on gas wells on the school grounds, several of which have leaked and spread liquid nearby. Other theories include a possible autoimmune reaction to infection, called PANDAS, which can have neurological consequences including tics. (The National Institutes of Health has offered to examine the girls for this, as well as evaluate them for an ongoing study on conversion disorder.) Vaccine concerns have been raised. The state report on Friday said not all the girls had the Gardasil shot to prevent HPV infection. They did not address the issue of flu shots, most of which contain mercury, an established cause of tics.
If a toxin generated from schoolyard grass were the cause, ironically, it would appear to absolve LeRoy as some sort of toxic wastebasket, although the question of why the school was sited where it is might become more pertinent. We learned that in 2000, the district ignored an offer of free land within the village of LeRoy and instead bought land for the new school from the brother and mother of the school board president.
As we reported here, several of the fields sit atop a federally designated FEMA flood hazard area.
Former students and townspeople have told us that flooding and settling problems have plagued the school since it opened in 2003, and that ball fields and a soccer field had to be dug up and rebuilt in the past year or so because of water woes.
Dan Olmsted is Editor and Mark Blaxill is Editor at Large of Age of Autism.com. They are co-authors of “The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic,” published in paperback in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books. Contact: [email protected].