Sharon Jayson, and Elizabeth Weise
Environmental activist Erin Brockovich has started her own investigation into the mysterious illness that's caused symptoms of facial tics and verbal outbursts among teenagers in Le Roy, N.Y., in light of new evidence about a toxic chemical spill more than 40 years ago that caused water and ground contamination nearby.
Brockovich gained notoriety with a 2000 movie (Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts) about her efforts to expose a toxic chemical coverup in California.
She told USA TODAY on Thursday that after families of affected teens and other community members asked her to look into the Le Roy case, she has spent the past week studying federal and state reports of a 1970 train derailment that spilled cyanide and an industrial solvent called trichloroethene within 3 miles of the high school attended by the 12 girls who started reporting neurological symptoms last fall. Three other teens, including one boy, are reportedly experiencing similar symptoms.
A statement issued by the school district said "medical and environmental investigations have not uncovered any evidence that would link the neurological symptoms to anything in the environment or of an infectious nature." An indoor-air-quality report and a mold report are posted on the school district's website.
"When I read reports like this that the New York Department of Health and state agencies were well-aware of the spill and you don't do water testing or vapor extraction tests, you don't have an all-clear," says Brockovich, of Los Angeles.
According to a 1999 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one ton of cyanide crystals spilled to the ground in the derailment, along with 35,000 gallons of trichloroethene. The crystals were removed but the trichloroethene was absorbed into the ground.
Brockovich says she has received about 100 e-mails regarding the girls' symptoms and the diagnosis of stress-related "conversion disorder."
"We don't have all the answers, but we are suspicious," Brockovich says. "They have not ruled everything out yet. The community asked us to help and this is what we do."