Nurse Lectures on Disease Clusters and Wellington Health
When Joyce L. Hansel, a registered nurse, moved to Wellington, a town ten miles south of Oberlin, she expected a quaint, beautiful town where she would eventually retire. She lived on a street near a foundry which often left red soot on her car and house.
Years later, Hansel developed multiple sclerosis, a disease which affects the central nervous system. Hansel then learned that 23 other residents in a six block radius had MS; eight of them lived on her street. It was a “disease cluster,” an area where many people live nearby with the same disease.
This was the topic of her lecture on March 20 to the Oberlin community.
“When the MS disease clusters were first realized in Wellington, I started searching for other disease clusters for similarities between us and them,” Hansel said. “[MS] did cause me to retire and give me the opportunity to look at the health community outside the confines of the hospital. What I found surprised and amazed me.”
Hansel investigated the surroundings of Wellington and discovered a nearby foundry had a history of non-compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations. In addition to scattering red soot on residents’ homes and cars, the foundry had an eight-acre dumpsite near the town’s water reservoir.
Hansel also examined other cities with disease clusters and discovered that they were close to polluting industries. “Almost every disease known is occurring in disease clusters across the country,” said Hansel. Often, cities build schools and apartment complexes on top of bulldozed factories or nearby Superfund sites, which are areas of extreme pollution. An MS cluster is near the high school; subsequently, many graduating students contracted the illness.
People in the Wellington disease cluster began contacting local officials and public health agencies. They wrote letters to many public officials and even the President; sent letters to the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer; and filed requests at the Ohio EPA, the Lorain City Health Department and the Ohio Department of Health for studies of the cluster.
Despite these efforts, it took 20 years before any action was taken. Results from a study did not designate pollution as the cause; instead, they pointed to lifestyle choices such as smoking and poor diets.
“We have a weak infrastructure in our public health system and it needs to be re-built from the bottom up,” said Hansel. She emphasized that public health officials do not need to meet specific educational requirements about health systems; a Master’s degree in science will suffice.
The EPA has loose regulations on industries, Hansel continued. While the Toxic Release Industry presents data on the use of 80,000 chemicals used across the country, the EPA tests less than one percent of these chemicals. Instead, the EPA advises companies to test these chemicals themselves and submit a report, which allows for selective reporting. Some industries, such as dry cleaners, auto service stations, hospitals, airports, landfills and farms using pesticides do not have to report at all.
She said that the EPA has outdated computer systems and laboratories. Hansel argued that tax dollars are spent inefficiently. Finally, studies of disease clusters take years to begin, a delay which alters the number in a disease cluster. The number of residents with MS in Wellington used to be higher; however, many subjects moved out of Wellington or died before a comprehensive study could commence.
“This would not be a problem if we had a fully operational disease tracking network in this country,” said Hansel. “[It] would quickly identify a disease cluster, identify toxic exposures [and] find commonalities that can lead to identification of causes and treatments for chronic diseases.”
Chronic disease statistics are available from some organizations, such as the MS Society and American Lung Association. However, the government does not track clusters. “No one’s counting and there’s no way to track how many people are chronically ill,” said Hansel.
She also stressed the importance of knowing about disease clusters and cities with disease clusters.
“[There is a need] to make people aware of the uncontrolled pollution and chronic disease epidemic in this country...These people are often powerless, and agencies are often unable or unwilling to help them,” said Hansel.
Hansel also stressed the importance of Oberlin students knowing about situations in their community.
“This should be of interest to the students who live in Lorain County
nine months out of the year,” she said. “There is a real need for
people to get out there and help [victims]...I hope something I said might
inspire you when you go out into the world.”