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Mystery Disease: Hysteria or Toxic Spill?

High school students in the small town of Leroy, New York have been coming down with strange tics and verbal outbursts, with no obvious cause. Several girls have even started using wheelchairs. Some people are saying that these are a result of "mass hysteria," but environmental activist Erin Brockovich thinks a toxic chemical spill 40 years ago could be the cause.

On ABC News, Katie Moisse and Linsey Davis quote Brockovich as saying, "They have not ruled everything out yet. The community asked us to help, and this is what we do."

We know that pesticides can cause Parkinson's-like tics, but if that's the case, why did it take so long to manifest? Further investigation could answer that question, but right now, the Genesee County sheriff's office has shut down Brockovich's investigation.

A derailed train spilled cyanide and trichloroethene within 3 miles away from Le Roy High School in 1970, and all 15 of the affected teenagers (14 girls and one boy) attended the school when they started showing symptoms.

ABC News quotes a spokesperson for the New York Department of Health has saying that they found "no evidence of environmental or infection as the cause of the girls' illness. The school is served by a public water system. An environmental exposure would affect many people."

However, the origins of modern epidemics of this type are hard to trace because they can also involve genetic susceptibility--in other words, two people can be exposed to the same toxin, but only one of them may develop symptoms.

USA Today quotes Brockovich as saying, "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."

When it comes to things like pollution and climate change, hiding our heads in the sand WON'T make it go away. At, we know this well: We were one of the first to talk about it (but then, Whitley had inside information!)

On reading this story earlier in the week, my first thought was, of all things, the Salem Witch trials. The behavior of the kids in New York mimics that of the adolescents (alleged victims of witches) in Salem over 300 years ago. While not totally discounting a possible toxin or other factor affecting the New York kids' behavior, something is going on, although I feel pretty certain it isn't witchcraft either. If it is hysteria, there must be a common thread among these kids that should be explored.

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