HERMITAGE Local physician pushes for testing of water

HERMITAGE, Pa. -- The local physician who launched a myasthenia gravis support group after his son was diagnosed with the disease is asking a state advisory council to do some investigating here.
The incidence of the disease in Mercer County is considerably higher than the national average, said Dr. David A. Vermeire, an orthopedic surgeon.
His son, Jeff, was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (a chronic, incurable neuromuscular disease) during his senior year in high school in 1999.
Vermeire said he learned that a second student a year behind Jeff, Kisha Doutt, had also been diagnosed with the disease and, in 2001, Courtney Ivan, a classmate and friend of Kisha's, was diagnosed as well.
Many more cases
Vermeire formed a support group and soon learned there were a lot more local people afflicted with myasthenia gravis in the area.
To date, he is aware of 32 cases in Mercer County, which has a population of about 120,000, and he suspects there are others he doesn't know about. The national average is 17 cases per 100,000.
Vermeire said there are concerns that environmental factors may be responsible for the autoimmune disease, and he plans to ask the Citizens Advisory Council to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to get the state to do some testing of water in the Shenango River, a major Mercer County water supply.
He has been invited to address the council at its regional meeting Wednesday in DuBois, Pa.
Wants help
Vermeire said he will ask the council for its help in getting the state to begin testing river water and drinking water for polychlorinated biphenyls (believed to be a cancer-causing agent) and dioxin, a poison. Both are believed to have an adverse effect on the immune system.
He pointed out that the water intake for Consumers Pennsylvania Water Co. (which provides water to 75,000 people in Pennsylvania and Ohio) is just downstream from the River Road Landfill and the Westinghouse Electric Corp. plant, both of which might have caused pollutants to enter the river.
Both the plant and landfill have been closed for years.
The DEP has warned fishermen for years to limit their eating of bottom-feeding fish taken from the Shenango River because of PCBs found in river sediment.
If significant amounts are found in the water, "We need to do something about that," Vermeire said.
A spokesman for the water company said it isn't required to test for either PCBs or dioxin but that it did do tests for both when Westinghouse was still operating and for a time thereafter. The plant shut down in 1985.
Only some very minor trace amounts of PCBs were ever found, and dioxin never showed up in any tests, the spokesman said.
Vermeire said Dr. David Lacomis, director of the Neuromuscular Division of the Department of Neurology of UPMC in Pittsburgh and a member of the National Medical/Scientific Advisory Board of the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America, will speak to the Mahoning/Shenango Valley support group at 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Suburban Restaurant, 3176 E. State St.
The dinner meeting is open to the public.

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