Medical mystery draws national attention
Famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich is testing near the school for environmental toxins, which some believe could be the cause of the tics. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, a neurologist who is evaulating those suffering from tics, believes the symptoms are a result of conversion disorder. Courtesty of Dent Neurologic Institute
The cause of Tourette-like symptoms in 16 LeRoy residents has baffled officials. Lori Brownell, junior, is one of the girls experiencing symptoms. Tim Fenster/Managing Editor
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.
"The dose makes the poison," Esler wrote in an email to The Stylus. "If the dose is low enough you would not expect to see effects. … Anyone in the area 40 (plus) years after the spill would be exposed to a tiny fraction of [dangerous levels of TCE exposure]."
The LeRoy School District held a community meeting Saturday, Feb. 4 in the auditorium of LeRoy Junior-Senior High School to discuss the testing conducted through Leader Professional Services, an environmental, industrial hygiene, and safety services company, according to the company's website, www.leaderlink.com.
The company announced it found no environmental toxins, but would continue testing the air and soil near the school.
At the meeting, which hundreds attended, school officials sought to quell the fear and anxiety that has spread amongst parents and concerned community members.
"So much misinformation, speculation and erroneous facts that's traveling at the speed of light have caused great concern," district superintendent Kim Cox said.
However, many in the passionate and divided crowd felt school officials had not done enough.
"They say they are for the kids, for the kids, for the kids — well, let's show them that you are for the kids and start letting these independent people do the testing," said Beth Miller, a LeRoy mother whose daughter is suffering from the symptoms, according to CNN.
Miller may have been referencing an episode reported by the Democrat and Chronicle in which school officials ordered Brockovich's representatives and a group of reporters off school grounds Saturday, Jan. 28.
Meanwhile, medical officials maintain that the tics are the result of psychological stress and hysteria.
New York State Health Department reports state eight of 12 students evaluated thus far have been diagnosed with conversion disorder, a term used to describe a physical health problem that is caused by a mental or emotional crisis.
Three of the other 12 girls had illnesses with tic symptoms predating their attendance at LeRoy Junior-Senior High School, according to the reports.
"Conversion disorder is very common," Dr. Laszlo Mechtler told the Buffalo News. "Neurologists see it regularly. I probably see it every two or three days."
Mechtler works at Dent Neurologic Institute, which has thus far evaluated 12 of the 16 reported cases.
Mechtler says the media attention is exasperating the effects of conversion disorder, which is also known as "mass hysteria."
"In conversion disorder, the worst thing you can do is interview these teenagers and reinforce the disorder and increase their stress," Mechtler told The Batavian.
Residents are ‘frustrated'
In addition, several LeRoy residents interviewed by The Stylus expressed anger and frustration at the media hype.
An employee at Vintage and Vogue, a LeRoy gift shop, described TV news vans being parked along Main Street and reporters filling grocery stores in LeRoy, a village of about 4,000, according to the 2010 census.
"We're not liking [the media attention]," said the employee, who withheld her name. "We just want them to go away. That's all I have to say [because] the more I say, the more they come."
She said she thinks most residents are only concerned for the health and well-being of those suffering from the symptoms. Her statements were echoed by a worker at a nearby Artisan's Co-op in LeRoy.
"I think everyone's really frustrated," said the worker, who also withheld his name. "The media is totally blowing [this] out of proportion.
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