Listen to the Canaries in Le Roy, NY

While some canaries fall silent, such as those injured by vaccines and diagnosed with autism, the warnings of other canaries can be heard loud and clear – their vocal tics and anguished stories resonating over the airwaves and in cyberspace. In recent weeks, America has been riveted by developments at Le Roy Jr./Sr. High School in upstate New York where twelve girls ages 13 to 19 began experiencing tourettes-like symptoms – the cause of which is intensely debated by medical experts. 

The total number of official cases in Le Roy is now reported at 19, with 17 of them being Le Roy High School students. Two girls at Corinth High School near Albany are also affected. Symptoms began in May for the first two cases (Le Roy and Corinth).  The disorder has been so debilitating for some students that they’ve given up cheerleading, athletics and even attending school. Some are now reported to have improved while others’ symptoms have worsened. Indoor air tests were initially conducted with all results coming back negative. No soil tests were commissioned.

The teens’ plight hit the national news when several families went public with their stories, followed by the Le Roy school district informing the community that the school was deemed safe by federal agencies and state medical professionals. The New York State Health Department ruled out environmental and infectious causes. But the reassurances rang hollow as information trickled in about the school’s siting on a FEMA-designated flood hazard area, rust-colored fungus on a playing field, leaking gas wells on school property, flooding problems, possible contamination from a nearby Superfund site as well as proximity to CAFOs, pesticide spraying of crops and other health hazards both natural and man-made. 

Most of the affected teens have been diagnosed with Conversion Disorder which attributes physical symptoms to stress that’s supposedly been converted subconsciously from psychological to physical expression. When striking groups of people, it’s called a mass psychogenic event – the classic term for mass hysteria. A diagnosis of exclusion, Conversion Disorder is a catch-all diagnosis made when other causes are ruled out. Parent Jim DuPont is the spokesman for Le Roy parents who seek an alternate explanation.

Many diseases and disorders were originally explained as psychological in origin, from fibromyalgia to autism – where “emotionally cold, refrigerator mothers” were blamed by doctors for their children’s odd behaviors. However, the inevitable debunking of such theories does not seem to dissuade the medical profession from continuing to blame stress when it fails to pinpoint the cause of an ailment. The NY State Health Department stands by the diagnosis of Conversion Disorder which was given to eight of the twelve girls. Four additional cases, beyond the original twelve, are now being treated by a doctor in Buffalo who diagnosed three of the four with Conversion Disorder.

Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, a neurologist from the clinic where many of the Le Roy NY girls were first diagnosed with Conversion Disorder has attributed their symptoms to the stress of living in the post 9/11 world. (There have been no reports of 9/11-related, mass psychogenic events at any of the NY metropolitan area schools where students actually lost parents or witnessed the attacks firsthand.) Standard treatment for Conversion Disorder includes prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Dr. Mechtler was revealed to have earned more than $175,000 as a paid speaker for Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, all of which manufacture drugs to treat depression and anxiety. He told the Buffalo News that Conversion Disorder is very common and neurologists see it regularly. “I probably see it every two or three days.” However, he described a mass psychogenic event as “a rare phenomena.” Mechtler claims that the reason people do not want to accept the diagnosis of Conversion Disorder is that “They live a conspiracy life in a bioterrorist world.”

Dr. David Lichter, a neurologist in Buffalo is now making headlines for blaming social networking sites. He told MSNBC that residents might be unconsciously mimicking the tics after uploading videos of sufferers on Youtube and Facebook. 

Disagreeing with the psychiatric diagnosis, Fox News’ Dr. Marc Siegel proposed PANDAS as the cause of the symptoms, stating he had “almost no doubt about it.” PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) is a chronic strep infection causing OCD (obsessive/compulsive disorder). Siegel said antibiotics would treat the disorder, although successful treatment would take a long time. In the same broadcast, it was reported that a treatment had been given to the girls that was not disclosed to their parents. 

The NY State Department of Health stated in its preliminary report “none of the cases meet the PANDAS criteria.” However, PANDAS expert Dr. Rosario Trifeletti, who disputes the Conversion Disorder diagnosis as “garbage,” visited Le Roy and took blood and tissue samples from eight of the nine afflicted girls he examined in order to test for such an infection (which can occur without typical symptoms such as a sore throat). On February 6, he announced the results: five of the eight show evidence of common group A strep, and seven show evidence of infection with the bacteria that causes walking pneumonia. Both bacterium have been associated with a PANDAS-like illness of sudden onset of motor and vocal tics. He concluded, “A PANDAS-like illness is my working diagnosis rather than a mass conversion disorder as others have suggested.” 

He has started treating the girls with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory agents. Regarding Dr. Mechtler’s insistence on the diagnosis of conversion disorder, Dr.Trifeletti said, “I’m confused by that because he’s never actually seen or interviewed any of the nine girls I examined.” Upon learning of some families’ intent to consult with an expert in PANDAS, Dr. Mechtler expressed outrage that Dr. Trifeletti was consulted, calling the development “a significant concern for the health of the girls” and referred to Dr. Trifeletti as “a zealot.”

Despite the suspected bacterium showing up in lab results, Dr. Trifeletti maintains that many questions remained unanswered about the girls’ reaction to common pathogens: Why these particular children? Why this town?  He suspects that genetic and other environmental components are also playing a role, and that the infectious exposure was simply “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” 

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) has offered to examine the students for PANDAS. The agency also invited the affected students to receive a second opinion on their diagnoses of Conversion Disorder. A spokesman for the NIH, which frequently partners with pharmaceutical companies in drug development, stated that the federal agency is “very interested in psychogenic movement disorder. This is one of our major areas of interest.” 

The mantra “vaccines have been ruled out” has appeared in many news articles and reports about the Le Roy disorder. The U.S. government has collected tens of thousands of adverse event reports, (tics among the adverse events), for Merck’s Gardasil, a three-part vaccine against Human Papilloma Virus that is given mostly to teen girls. The NY State Dept. of Health has disclosed that seven of the original 12 girls received the Gardasil vaccine, and six of those seven received it more than a year before symptoms began to show. Records of flu shots, which usually contain mercury, were not disclosed. The vaccine preservative Thimerosal, which is 50% methylmercury by weight, has been documented in four studies to cause tics.

Debate over the cause of the symptoms has led to extraordinary developments.  Environmental advocate Erin Brokovich – popularized by actress Julia Roberts in a film of the same name – sent her representatives to Le Roy High School after being flooded by requests for information from parents and members of the community.  Brokovich raised the issue of a 1970 train derailment and resulting chemical spill in which one ton of cyanide and 35,000 gallons of trichloroethylene, an industry solvent, were released 3 miles from the school. The latter is a human carcinogen that has been linked to Parkinson disease – a movement disorder. Bob Bowcock, lead researcher for Brockovich’s team said “You’ve got the largest TCE spill in the federal system and they forgot about it.” He doubts the site is connected to the problems at the school, but says the way the plume is moving, there are residents who should be on municipal water, not well water. He collected three water samples from private homeowner wells.

Bowcock said the biggest area of concern are the gas wells on school property, but he hasn’t been able to get basic information from the school district about the wells and the gas that’s used in the school.  (He noted a vent in the school recently sent teachers to the school nurse.) Bowcock is still trying to gain permission to do testing at the school, and said his efforts have been hampered by the media which misreported that he was there to gather soil samples. He carried a spade to move dirt, rocks and brush to make visual inspections, calling the trip a first reconnaissance on the topography. After initially receiving permission to be escorted around school grounds for this purpose, he was later told to leave school property, accused of criminal activity by Superintendent Kim Cox.

Countering Cox’s statement to the community that environmental causes would not discriminate and many people would be affected, Bowcock gave the example that Brockovich is allergic to sulfur and has a reaction whenever they go onto sites with sulfur, but sulfur doesn’t affect him. Regarding his work in Le Roy, he told The Batavian “I feel a responsibility to close it properly, if it takes six days, six weeks or six years, it is what it is.” A detailed summary of the challenges he faces and some of his recommendations are available HERE.

Author/journalist Dan Olmsted also visited Le Roy. His previous investigative work includes two UPI series – one revealing the low incidence of autism in the less vaccinated Amish population, the other exposing dangerous neurological side effects of a malaria drug. He also co-authored a book and is editor of an online newspaper, both titled Age of Autism, which explore environmental causes of the autism epidemic. Unconvinced that Conversion Disorder explains the students’ symptoms, Olmsted reported back with facts, photographs and interviews that tell a very different story than the official one. 

Collaborating with Mark Blaxill, Canary Party chairman and Age of Autism co-author, Olmsted published several articles in pointing to possible culprits in the environment that demand further investigation. He noted that new playing fields were built on FEMA flood hazard land just before the illnesses hit, one such field used exclusively by girls. He also noted commonalities between Le Roy and Bath, another upstate community where a young man – Brian Tremblay – began experiencing identical symptoms around the same time as the students 70 miles north. Record-setting rains in both areas, low-lying land with standing water and an unusually warm winter in which the ground and water haven’t frozen may have created ideal conditions for spreading pesticides or other toxins or for breeding a natural pathogen that thrives on moisture. 

Olmsted and Blaxill propose an intriguing theory based on an insight by Tremblay, whose house was built on a former riverbed. Tremblay told Olmsted that Salem Witch trial historians believe a fungus called ergot caused tic-like symptoms in those accused. Their “convulsions” and “fits” described in historical accounts may have been the same symptoms as those now seen in young people in upstate New York.

According to Olmsted and Blaxill, ergot grows on grains like rye and is documented to cause neurological symptoms including tics if its compounds are somehow ingested.  Ryegrass is used on most athletic playing fields and it was planted on the field behind Tremblay’s house last spring where his well is located. An orange-colored fungus can infect ergot fungi, but when LeRoy parents complained about the orange substance oozing on the playing fields, school officials dismissed it as a harmless, non-toxic fungus.

The two Corinth High School students affected by the symptoms both played on the girls’ softball team, and the first one to fall ill collapsed unconscious during a game and began twitching and convulsing. At least half of the Le Roy cases are athletically active girls.

The Le Roy school district is taking further steps “to reassure” the community. A meeting took place February 4 at the school, attended by hundreds of parents – many of them angry at the school district’s response to the illness. The district has now hired Leader Professional Services to assess the testing already performed at the high school and to make recommendations for further testing. More detailed indoor air quality monitoring is planned for the school, with results coming back in two weeks at which point soil testing will be considered. No known environmental testing has been conducted in or around the homes of the affected students.

If the canaries in Le Roy and nearby communities are signaling the presence of a poisonous microbe that thrives in moist conditions, then concerns should be raised about human habitation of wetlands. (The Le Roy school district purchased the low-lying land from relatives of the then-school board president and turned down other acreage that was offered as a donation.) If PANDAS is a factor, then we need to understand why these particular teens, mostly girls, are vulnerable.  Another message from Le Roy is that psychological explanations for physical symptoms should not be the default position for doctors stumped by a diagnosis. Exhaustive investigation of all factors potentially impacting human health must been undertaken; children should not be diagnosed en masse with mental illness when their homes, the water they drink and the environment where they play their sports have yet to be thoroughly tested for neurotoxins. It’s time to listen to the canaries, and put the victim-blaming mentality of 17th century Salem behind us.