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Erin Brockovich: Cyanide, Industry Solvent May Be Cause of Rare Teen Syndrome In New York

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Erin Brockovich has already started an investigation of the causes for the rare syndrome that seems to be mysteriously spreading among New York State teens. She already has a prime suspect.


Brockovich, the environmental activist popularized by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie of the same name, started to investigate last week following a request by the parents of the kids affected by this illness. According to her, a chemical spill may be the cause of this problem.

In 1970, a train derailed within three miles of the LeRoy High School, in Genesee County, New York. 15 of the 17 kids with symptoms attend this high school.


The train spilled cyanide and trichloroethylene. The former is a poisonous compound mainly used in the mining of gold and silver and other industries, sadly known for its use during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. The latter is a non-flammable chlorinated hydrocarbon that is used as an industrial solvent. It is a clear non-flammable liquid with a sweet smell. A National Toxicology Program report says that this substance is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Studies have linked it to tumors and Parkinson disease.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that one ton of cyanide crystals and 35,000 gallons of trichloroethylene were spilled on the train derailment. Brockovich and her scientific team seem to believe that the syndrome may be connected to the chemical spill caused by the train derailment:

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.

The cases started last August, when 16-year-old Lori Brownell fainted for the first time. Following that episode, she started to develop twitches that have progressively gotten worse with time. On Christmas Eve, doctors told Lori she may have Tourette syndrome, a sickness that causes involuntary physical and vocal tics.

Since then, 17 other teenagers have developed the same Tourette-like symptoms. Brockovich is cautious to say that they are not ruling out any possibility, "but [they] are suspicious."


The National Institute of Health is also on the case. They are going to examine the patients, looking for potential causes to this syndrome, which was initially diagnosed by some doctors as conversion disorder, the modern name for hysteria. [USA Today]