My colleague at Age of Autism Dan Olmsted is an investigative journalist. He was with USA Today when they launched and wrote the "Age of Autism" series for UPI. He and his writing partner Mark Benjamin broke the story of Lariam, a malaria drug given to US soldiers, causing neurological damage that lead to murder suicides. Here he takes on the poor girls of Leroy, New York, who have suffered tics and Tourette's like syndrome - and have been told by neurologists that they are "hysterical" - and have a Conversion Disorder. Which is doc talk for "it's all in your head."
Health experts say they’ve eliminated every possible environmental and infectious cause for the “tics” afflicting 12 girls at LeRoy Junior/Senior High School in New York state. They’ve scoured the building for mold and carbon monoxide (nothing, they say), considered illnesses that might cause the symptom (none), even checked on vaccinations (not all girls had the same shot).
However thorough that workup may have been, it seems to have stopped at the schoolhouse Exit sign. Except for checking a log of pesticide spraying, there is no evidence they considered toxins in the schoolyard or on playing fields. Yet the symptoms occurred during mild weather when students would have been outside, and the school grounds are surrounded by intensively farmed land from which chemicals could conceivably have seeped or drifted.
The school is required to keep annual pesticide logs that were reviewed by a consulting firm looking into environmental factors, and therefore pesticides were ruled out. As best I can determine, that’s as far as it went.
That may not be far enough, given that parents and some of the students involved don’t accept the psychogenic diagnosis they have been given, and that a number of Web commentators familiar with the school have raised concerns about the grounds and how the relatively new building is sited.
Public health officials remain adamant that the case is closed.
"The LeRoy school is safe,” Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, replied Friday after I raised the issue in a telephone call. “The environment or an infection is not the cause of the students’ tics. There are many causes of tics-like symptoms. Stress can often worsen tic-like symptoms.
“All of the affected students have been evaluated and some have shown signs of improvement. Vaccines (Gardasil) have been ruled out."
While the department has been careful for privacy reasons to avoid naming the illness, a doctor treating the girls has now gone public, with their permission, by calling it “conversion disorder.” Known less gingerly as mass hysteria, the diagnosis is rooted in 19th century Freudian psychology: Stress or trauma is subconsciously transformed into physical symptoms that can occur in several people at the same time.
In part because the LeRoy diagnosis took months to emerge, and in part because many people – including parents and affected children – find conversion disorder a suspect explanation, multiple theories continue to arise. Those include concerns about the school building and grounds, expressed in online comments:
-- An environmental study “would be the first logical step, knowing that the school was built in a swamp and that a number of classrooms were underwater the first year as well as the gym you would think it would be the first thing the school would address- even if only to disprove it.”
-- “Girls started feeling sick in September, sounds like pesticide spraying At the end of summer before the fall to protect late crops.” (The girls’ symptoms began as early as September 10, according to published accounts.)
-- “Have the doctors considered that the condition may be related to the school's having been built on swampy land? Water in the building continues to be a problem. A second story that should be pursued by the press and others is why this new school was built and why it was built on this particular piece of land.”
A quick look look at Google Earth (click the plus sign to see the school and grounds in detail) shows the setting. The high school’s Web site has an aerial photo that appears to show a large pool of standing water close to the school, with a rivulet coming even closer; it appears to be dry in the Google photo.
Farming, despite its idyllic image in American lore, is a highly chemical-intensive practice, and Western New York is no exception. For that and other reasons, it can be dangerous. In October, a few miles west of LeRoy in Genesee County, two people became ill when a pesticide being applied to a potato field wafted in their direction. The substance was a toxic fumigant being injected into the soil in preparation for planting this year’s crop. Officials said humidity might have helped spread it.
Obviously, that incident had nothing to do with the LeRoy illnesses, but it does give a sense of time and place missing in accounts of the area, as well as suggesting weather is an unpredictable vector.
But in such a scenario, why would only girls be affected? That's unclear, but there are a number of possibilities that environmental triggers could help explain. For instance, in some cases of mass illness in high schools, the victims were male football players and the problems were traced to toxins where they played. Being male was not a susceptibility factor, but it pointed to the exposure nonetheless. (In another case, marching band members suffered the same problem for the same reason.)
It is possible that more has been done to consider toxins outside the school building, but if so nothing has been done to communicate it to the national media.
In fact, opportunities continue to be missed. The two consultant reports and the school district’s official statement make no mention of looking for anything amiss outside the building itself ,except to note the water supply comes from neighboring Monroe County's public system. "No history of building water damage or site contamination was found," it states.
Neither the district nor the consulting firm it hired would talk to me Friday when I told them I was seeking information on whether risks outside the school building had been investigated.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of “The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic,” published by Thomas Dunne Books.