What's Behind the Cancer Cluster in Illinois?

By: Byron Pitts, CBS News
By: Byron Pitts, CBS News

McHENRY, Ill. - Forty-six year old Sandy Wierschke, a once energetic, healthy woman with a career, husband and a child, is dying from brain cancer.

"I don't know what the future holds for me anymore," she said. "I am just living three months to three months and hoping that I can make it another three months."

That's how her neighbor Bryan Freund is living, too. He also has brain cancer. Neighbors on either side of his home have also developed brain cancer.

"And at that point between us and the Branhams and the Weisenbergers, we just knew that something was far out of the ordinary," Freund said. "You live MRI to MRI."

And there are more cases. More than a dozen cases.

"I am John Smith," said another patient. "I am on my second brain tumor."

An amatuer video shows residents in McCullom Lake Village. It is a community of a thousand people - but every person in the video either has a brain tumor, lives with a relative with one or lost someone to brain cancer.

There, in a community of about 1,000 people, 14 residents have developed brain cancer. Nationally the rate is roughly seven out of 100,000.

Coincidence?

Attorney Aaron Freiwald says "absolutely not." He represents the McCollum Lake Village residents in their lawsuits against multi-billion dollar chemical company Rohm and Haas. Rohm and Hass has had a plant there since 1963. It makes specialty chemicals that are used in a variety of industries - from plastics to pesticides. And it has 140 different facilities in 27 countries.

"These people who lived in McCollum Lake did not know what was going on just a mile or so away. They didn't know. They didn't know until people were found to have brain cancer in these really striking numbers," Freiwald said.

The company admits that for 20 years ending in 1979, it dumped toxic chemical waste in an eight-acre pit on its property. The goundwater beneath the plant is polluted with gallons of chemicals - some are known human carcinogens. In May, the county tested only 14 of the water wells around McCullom Lake Village and found no contamination.

But local residents say no testing was done during the time Rohm and Haas was dumping chemicals.

"They knew that there were chemicals in there - that they were dangerous," Freiwald said.

Whatever is happening in McHenry, Ill., seems to be going on 800 miles east in Philadelphia. And it's not outside a Rohm and Haas plant - but inside.

"The doctors knew right away that there was something terribly wrong," said Lee Hsu, whose husband Charles was one of 12 research scientists who has died of brain cancer in the past 30 years, working at the Rohm and Haas facilities north of Philadelphia. "It was the saddest day in my life."

At least five of the 12 researchers worked on one hallway in this one building - building Number 4.

Hsu's supervisor, Barry Lange, also died of brain cancer. His widow, Linda Lange, and several other widows are suing Rohm and Haas.

"I think there could be a cancer cluster there, you know Charles Hsu worked for my husband," Linda Lange said. "I am not a scientist but the numbers alone make me questions it."

Corporate whistleblower Thomas Haag said: "I was lied to, I was given the run-around, I was stalled and I was brushed off. I don't brush off easily."

Haag is a trained chemist and former executive at Rohm and Haas. In 1996, he wrote the company's chief of medicine about a possible brain cancer problem at the company. But it wasn't until six years later when two more scientists died and one more was diagnosed with brain cancer that the company decided to conduct its own study.


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