Medical mystery draws national attention
Published: Monday, February 6, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 12:02
The small, nearby town of LeRoy, N.Y. has been thrown into the national spotlight, as major media outlets across the country have picked up the mysterious story of 16 people who have inexplicably developed Tourette-like symptoms.
The story is shrouded in mystery and speculation. Different parties with different interests have made varying claims about the severity of the situation and the possible causes of the uncontrollable tics, which have developed in 14 girls and one boy at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School, and a 36-year-old woman.
Offered explanations include mass hysteria, emotional trauma, harmful by-products of hydraulic fracturing, toxic chemicals released during a 1970s train derailment and Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders (PANDAS).
The website for the National Institute of Mental Health states, "[PANDAS] is a term used to describe a subset of children who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and/or tic disorders, such as Tourette's Syndrome.."
It continues, "children usually have a dramatic, ‘overnight' onset of symptoms, including motor and/or vocal tics, obsessions and/or compulsions."
However, medical officials say PANDAS is extremely rare, and its existence is disputed in the medical community.
How the tics began
Most reports state these symptoms were first reported last October. However, 16-year-old Lori Brownell said in a YouTube video that she first saw these symptoms a few months earlier.
"Last August I had passed out at a concert — I was head-banging — and I thought I was just dehydrated," Brownell said in the video, which was posted Dec. 18, 2011. "About a month [later] I passed out again at the homecoming dance. After the dance, the passing out got closer and closer together. It happens almost every day now."
Throughout the video, Brownell flutters her fingers and snorts through her nose and throat. She said these tics have been holding her back in her education and personal life.
"I haven't really been able to do anything," Brownell said. "I haven't been to school since October, and every time I go somewhere I'm always twitching and [fluttering my fingers], which I cannot control."
The LeRoy Central School District released this statement: "The health and safety of our students is our first priority. The medical and environmental investigations have not uncovered any evidence that would link the neurological symptoms to anything in the environmental or of an infectious nature. The affected students are all working with medical professionals."
Are toxins to blame?
The story has appeared on Dr. Drew, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and virtually every local media outlet. Fanning the flames of this media firestorm, famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich sent investigators to test the grounds near LeRoy High School for possible environmental toxins.
Brockovich became a national figure after the release of the 2000 self-titled film, depicting her case against the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for contaminating groundwater in Hinkley, Calif., which caused a spike in cancer cases among residents there.
Brockovich said her involvement was spurred by families of affected teens and LeRoy community members who asked her to look into the case, according to USAToday.com.
She and investigator Robert Bowcock have been looking into a 1970s train derailment that spilled cyanide and an industrial solvent called tricholroethene (TCE) several miles from the school.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports state that long-term exposure to high-concentrations of TCE can cause ataxia, decreased appetite, short-term memory loss, sleep disturbances and vertigo.
However, J. Grant Esler, an expert on environmental safety and a lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), ruled out the possibility of TCE poisoning because of the amount of time that has passed since the spill.