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State study can't link leukemia to chemicals at River Valley schools
Friday, July 27, 2001
Dispatch Staff Reporter

MARION, Ohio -- State health officials said last night that they could not determine whether toxic contamination at River Valley schools contributed to a high rate of leukemia among graduates.

An extensive four-year study by the Ohio Department of Health turned up 83 leukemia cases in Marion County, including nine graduates with leukemia. River Valley's high school and middle school sit on part of a former military depot where chemical waste was dumped for years. An investigation of the contamination and school leukemia cases began in 1997.

"Despite an exhaustive study, making use of the best available science, we were unable to identify one single cause'' for the leukemia, Dr. J. Nick Baird, state Health Department director, said in a statement.

The leukemia study looked at high-school graduates from 1963 to 2000. The study later was expanded to look at all leukemia cases in Marion County between Jan. 1, 1992, and Dec. 31, 1999, using data from the state cancer registry.

A total of 47 leukemia victims participated in the study, including all nine graduates. Two people refused to participate, and health officials weren't able to interview 34 others.

In a report released last night to a community-advisory group studying contamination issues at River Valley and elsewhere in Marion, three primary conclusions were reached:

  • The most common factor among the leukemia victims was direct or secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke.

  • Six of the River Valley graduates had extensive contact with school grounds through sports or agricultural activities, but it is not known whether it included exposure to potential cancer-causing contaminants that might have played a role in their leukemia.

  • Continued study of leukemia among Marion County residents and River Valley graduates is unlikely to identify additional factors that caused the leukemia.

    "There are 56,000 new cases of cancer each year in Ohio,'' Robert Indian of the state Health Department told the advisory group. "The way cancer works, there are usually a number of factors at work.''

    Don Millard, co-chairman of the advisory group, said group members appreciated the work done by the Health Department.

    "You're always hoping you can find a smoking gun, something that makes sense,'' Millard said. "We're back to square one. We still do not know if the leukemia cluster at the school is caused by what.''

    Some Marion residents and others had questioned why the study took so long. Indian said last night that the department wanted to be as thorough as possible.

    One group member suggested Indian attend the next meeting in two months to give members a chance to review the study. Indian said he would attend.

    A related Health Department study looking at all cancers among River Valley graduates was released last year. It showed that in addition to leukemia, there also was a higher rate of cancer of the esophagus then expected. No conclusions were drawn by that study.

    River Valley, a 1,700-student district east of Marion, plans to build a new high school and middle school on a different site by August 2003. The most heavily contaminated areas of the school campus have been restricted, and school and other officials have determined it is safe for the students to remain in the current schools for the next two years.

    tsheehan@dispatch.com

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