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Study finds no link to air base, illnesses

More than a decade after launching a study on the prevalence of two neurological diseases near the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, state health officials are ready to close the book on the controversy.

The results, announced Thursday evening before a standing-room-only crowd at Weymouth Town Hall, found no geographic clusters, suspicious patterns, or unusually high numbers of cases of either multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

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There was a higher-than-normal prevalence of multiple sclerosis in the three towns (Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth) that surround the former air base, the study found, but those afflicted with the disease tended not to live close to the base.

The research was conducted in response to concerns that contamination at the base, which closed in 1997, may have caused the diseases.

The study concluded that while it could not rule out the possibility that environmental or occupational exposures played a role in individual cases, the overall pattern of disease probably was not affected by proximity to the base.

The study was funded in 2002 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency involved with hazardous waste issues.

The Massachusetts Department of Health said it will continue to monitor the incidence of the two diseases throughout the state, and be on the lookout for clusters or patterns.

The findings didn’t satisfy some current and former residents.

David Wilmot, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, was unable to attend the Thursday meeting, so state health officials hand-delivered a copy of the study to him.

The 62-year-old Abington resident believes the federal government “watered down” the results during the lengthy peer review.

“My own belief is that federal agency has way too much power over Congress, and they’re looking out for the federal government’s best interest,” said Wilmot. “They rarely, if ever, tie any chemical study to a particular disease,” especially if it involves a government-owned military facility,” he said.

“I have no doubt that my disease is caused by contamination,” said Wilmot, who used to walk around wetlands next to the base.

After he was diagnosed, Wilmot said, he found that 70 people who lived near the base had one of the two diseases.

The study found 43 people with ALS in Southeastern Massachusetts, or 2.4 verified cases per 100,000 – statistically lower than the national rate of 4 to 6 per 100,000 people.

“We don’t think ALS is elevated in Southeastern Massachusetts,” said Robert S. Knorr, director of environmental epidemiology for the state health department.

Eight hundred cases of multiple sclerosis were found among residents in Southeastern Massachusetts, which equals 103 cases per 100,000 people, the study found. That, too, was lower than the rate of a comparison study, which found 110 to 140 cases of multiple sclerosis per 100,000 people.

Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth had higher rates of multiple sclerosis: approximately 144 cases per 100,000. But researchers found that many of the people with multiple sclerosis did not live near the base, so they do not believe environmental factors on the base played a major role.

The study looked at people who lived in 30 communities south of Boston from 1998 to 2003, with a special focus on Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth, as well as Middleborough, which is home to several hazardous waste sites.

To find people diagnosed with MS and ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, researchers turned to neurologists and hospitals. They also used, to a lesser extent, patient advocacy groups and death certificates.

It was supposed to take three years to complete, but there were delays along the way, said Suzanne K. Condon, associate commissioner for the state health department and director of the Bureau of Environmental Health.

She told the audience that progress was slowed by budget cuts and the peer review process.

“It did take longer than we wanted,” said Condon.

Currently, the Navy is overseeing the cleanup of the former base, which is designated as a Superfund site. The property is being redeveloped into a “smart growth” community called SouthField, which could eventually include up to 2,855 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial space.

Rockland resident Mary Parsons, who is executive director of Advocates for Rockland, Abington, Weymouth, and Hingham, a watchdog group, has been waiting for years for the results of the study.

Parsons said she wasn’t that surprised to hear that the people with MS don’t necessarily live next to the base. She wondered how jet fuel and exhaust may have affected the health of the residents in nearby communities.

Until the 1990s, when the runways were still operating, military planes “flew over us,” said Parsons. If you lived in Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth, “you had to paint your house every year,” she said.

Liz Tomolillo, a former Rockland resident who now lives in Florida, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000. She was concerned that researchers might not be able to track down everyone affected by the disease, especially people who, like she, had moved away.

In a telephone interview, the 57-year-old Tomolillo said she found it interesting that the prevalence for multiple sclerosis was higher in the three surrounding towns.

“OK,” she said, “so now I want to know. . . why?”

Information on the study and the final report are available at www.mass.gov/dph/environ
mental_health
, click on “Environmental Health Investigations.”
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