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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Report on suspected Poolesville cancer cluster expected next month

No evidence found, health officials say

by Meghan Tierney | Staff Writer

The results of a study about a suspected cancer cluster in Poolesville should be released to the public by June.

The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began looking into whether unusual cancer patterns existed in Poolesville in December 2008 after being contacted by a resident.

The CDC reported in July it did not find any evidence of a cancer cluster, after analyzing data from the Maryland Cancer Registry. A cancer cluster is defined as a greater than expected number of cases of similar cancers occurring in a short period of time among people who live or work near each other.

Health officials had hoped to complete a report on the findings by January but now expect to finish next month, said Dr. Clifford Mitchell, the state's director of environmental health coordination.

More recent figures on cancer cases in the state now are available from the cancer registry, Mitchell said, and health officials are analyzing that data and discussing how it should be incorporated into the report.

"We're very sensitive to the fact that the community wants to be certain that we looked at all available information," Mitchell said.

Fred Kelly of Poolesville contacted the county about initiating the study after his wife, Betsi, was diagnosed with renal cancer in October 2008, and he became concerned that the town's water might have been a factor. Betsi Kelly, an art teacher at Ronald A. McNair Elementary School in Germantown, died of the cancer in January at age 40.

Friends of the Kelly family raised $14,000 for the couple's three young daughters at a May 3 fundraiser that also included a golf tournament, silent auction and talent show. Local businesses and members of the community donated supplies and discounted services, said organizer John Kelly of Kensington, who is not related to Fred or Betsi Kelly.

"It's terrific — the generosity of people has been great," John Kelly said.

Unhealthy water?

Tests in 2005 to ensure Poolesville's water supply was in compliance with new federal standards found high levels of radionuclide particles such as radon and radium in several wells. Radionuclides are naturally occurring, emit alpha radiation as they decay and can cause cancer in large doses during a long period of time. The levels were below federal limits but merited further monitoring.

The EPA regulates about 90 contaminants in drinking water. The enforceable standards are based on the cost and feasibility of reducing contaminants in addition to health impacts. According to the EPA there is no safe level of radionuclides in drinking water.

The Poolesville Planning Commission will review a site plan for an $850,000 uranium and radon removal system at its meeting tonight at Town Hall, Town Manager Wade Yost said. A six-month pilot test that began last summer was successful, he said.

The system, which can remove 99 percent of uranium and radon from water and is fully funded in the town's budget, will be housed at well No. 9 and will treat water from wells Nos. 7, 9 and 10, Yost said. The town also stopped using water from wells Nos. 4, 7 and 10 last summer because of high radon levels, Yost said. The wells only will be used in emergencies.

Radon in drinking water is unregulated and has been the subject of little study, but radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. after smoking, according to a report on reducing environment cancer risks released by the President's Cancer Panel in April month.

"They kept denying anything's wrong with the water and now they're doing remediation," Fred Kelly said. "It's something long overdue and could save people's lives."

Residents have mixed opinions on whether the town should be treating for radionuclides, Yost said. Some say remediation will protect the health of residents while others think it is unnecessary and sends the wrong message about the town's water.

"The commissioners really felt it was in the best interest of the public and that it doesn't hurt to make our water the best we can," Yost said.

To help

To donate to the fund for Betsi and Fred Kelly's daughters, visit

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