23 News Investigation: Cancer Concerns Parts I and II

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STATELINE (WIFR) -- When our health goes south, it's often the water questioned first.

"I'm freaked out to have my little sisters drink the water. I'm like don't drink that," says Amanda Babyar.

Eighteen-year-old Amanda Babyar was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoma Leukemia in May. A year-and-half after her Hononegah classmate Matt Rader. And two months after fellow "Indian" Miguel Barrera died from cancer.

"I just think it's odd. I just wonder maybe something is happening and if we could find out what it is, it could be prevented," says Amanda's mom Penny Cure.

Some question whether the now shuttered Warner Electric has something to do with this. The EPA reports the manufacturing plant did contaminate the water, but those contaminants don't cause cancer.

"The groundwater plume from that site has moved on and is at such a low level that it's not impacting human health or the environment," says Matt Warneke.

Matt Warneke is President of Loves Park-based Trans Environmental, an environmental and hazmat clean-up company. Warneke tested several local families' water wells in early 2009 when health officials found the water at Ledgewood Elementary School contaminated. Warneke didn't find anything wrong.

"You try to figure out where it could be coming from whether it could be diet, whether it could be water, to me people put so many chemicals on their lawns," he says.

A clean report far from eases the minds of these families. Especially since the network of Stateline teens with leukemia is growing larger and more complicated.

"It's the Myeloid Leukemia that's less common that we're seeing more of which is very very concerning to us because we typically don't see that many of these patients. They have a worse prognosis they have a very tough course of chemotherapy. There's more suggestion there may be an environmental exposure with the Myeloid Leukemia than the lymphoid, so we don't know," says Dr. Carol Diamond, Hematologist-Oncologist at the University of Wisconsin American Family Children's Hospital in Madison.

Dr. Diamond typically sees four Acute Myeloid Leukemia patients a year at the UW Children's Hospital in Madison. However diagnosed ten in the last six months, half from the Stateline, including Neal Rylatt and Mitchell Riley.

"This is not a contagious illness. I think it's something until we can sort it out we shouldn't get hysterical by any means but it certainly is hard to ignore," she says.

Hard to ignore, but hard to get answers. The most recent figures from the Illinois Department of Public Health are from 2007, before these teens' diagnoses. Yet endocrinologists use those statistics to determine whether there's a problem.

"I just don't think we have evidence to show there's something seriously wrong at this point," says Dr. Tiefu Shen, Division Chief of Epidemiology Studies at the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency doesn't investigate unless there's a known pollutant. And the U.S. EPA doesn't respond until they're called. That leaves the Winnebago County Health Department, which until now was unaware of these cancer cases. Spokespeople say they'll start gathering data from the Centers for Disease Control and the IDPH. However both are long outdated. They remind us the incidence rate is simply high. That one-in-three will get cancer at sometime in their lifetime and it's the second leading cause of death.

"Everyone has cancer cells in them. It's just whether they get activated or not. Something is activating these things to happen," says Tom Rader, whose son Matt has leukemia.

There are known risk factors for leukemia. Such as genetics, high exposure to radiation and the chemical benzene. The EPA says benzene wasn't used at Warner Electric and it hasn't shown in local water samples. Leaving no clues as to why this is happening to so many local families.

"It really is a mystery, but until we find out for sure, we're just going to have to battle it," says Rader.

Dr. Diamond says she hopes to work with other hospitals and government agencies to better pinpoint a potential cause. And we'll be following up with her by the end of the year.

The Illinois Department of Public Health is looking to improve how it classifies cancer cases, but that information won't be made public. Statistics from 2008 will be released in the next few weeks, however even those are from before these local teens were diagnosed.

STATELINE (WIFR) -- "That was furthest from my mind."

It's something these recent Hononegah grads wish they didn't have in common.

"I was always tired. I actually always had a pain in my rib," says Matt Rader.

"I was feeling really tired. I would come home everyday and just pass out on the couch," says Amanda Babyar.

Both have Acute Lymphoma Leukemia or A.L.L.. Matt Rader was diagnosed in November 2009. Amanda Babyar just this May.

"It's scary. It's scary because it's a bad disease and kids are dying from it," says Matt's dad Tom Rader.

A third Hononegah student, Miguel Barrera died from leukemia in March. This heartache of a journey has exposed these families to just how widespread pediatric cancer is in the Rockford region. There's some belief the Roscoe-Rockton area has a cancer cluster.

"I have to emphasize that random chance could cause a so-called cancer cluster," says Dr. Tiefu Shen, Division Chief of Epidemiology Studies at the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The Illinois Department of Public Health says the numbers are too low to qualify as an official cluster. However, their most recent figures are from 2007, before Miguel's, Matt's and Amanda's diagnoses. During that five-year time period, 36 new leukemia cases were reported in their zip codes. 189 in all of Winnebago County. But the State doesn't reveal age groups due to privacy reasons. (Click here for a link to cancer cases in your county and zip code. http://www.idph.state.il.us/cancer/statistics.htm)

"The tracking alone is not difficult. The difficult part is to understand them. Is to find a cause of them. The entire scientific community still hasn't solved the puzzle of what causes cancer," says Dr. Shen.

Many young Stateline cancer patients visit the University of Wisconsin American Family Children's Hospital in Madison. And lately, more than usual.

"We've observed over the last few months there are more than there seems to be from the last five years coming from the southern part of the state (Wisconsin) and the Rockford area," says Dr. Carol Diamond, Pediatric Hematologist-Oncologist at the UW Children's Hospital.

Dr. Diamond is now tracking leukemia and hopes to work with other hospitals and state and federal agencies to pinpoint a cause. She's most concerned about Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Dr. Diamond sees about four A.M.L. cases a year, but diagnosed ten patients within the last six months, half are from the Stateline. This strain is typically seen in infants, yet it's now striking local teens like Neal Rylatt and Mitchell Riley.

"We know with myeloid leukemia, environmental exposure has played a role particularly adults. Whether it's pesticides or herbicides or ionizing radiation, so it's something we have to attend to in our environment certainly," says Dr. Diamond.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease says at least two-thirds of cancers are caused by environmental factors. But finding that exact cause remains unknown.

"If it turns out it's something in the environment or something that's happening, it's something that needs to be uncovered and found so we could help other families so it doesn't happen to any more children," says Amanda Babyar's mother, Penny Cure.

The American Family Children's Hospital in Madison has treated 82 patients for Acute Lymphoma Leukemia, which is the most common form of leukemia. That is what Matt and Amanda have. Dr. Diamond says ten of those patients are from the Stateline. The other pediatric hospitals in Milwaukee and Chicago frequented by Stateline families could not provide cancer data. Rockford's hospitals do not specialize in pediatric cancer.

Family friends of Neal Rylatt, mentioned above, wanted to let our viewers know a fund has been set up in Neal's name at Harris bank to help with medical costs.

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