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New study finds no toxins in Le Roy; Neurologists link student twitches to psychological stress

A second study has again found that the twitches, involuntary sounds and seizures that beset a group of Le Roy students and attracted international media attention earlier this year had no environmental cause.

The study, released by the school district Wednesday, comes as no surprise to treating physicians who say the teenagers are completing the road to recovery.

Of the 18 students -- mostly girls -- who suffered the Tourette-like symptoms, most are either back to normal or showing continued improvement. Of those seen at Dent Neurologic Institute, only one still exhibits any tics at all, said Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, a treating neurologist and vice president at Dent.

"Exactly what we thought would happen is exactly what happened," he said.

He predicted months ago that as soon as the media attention died down, so would the stress-related symptoms.

Mechtler spoke to The Buffalo News shortly before the district released a comprehensive analysis by an environmental testing firm, which found no evidence that toxins or contaminants in or around Le Roy Junior-Senior High School posed health risks.

Those results from Leader Professional Services, encompassing nearly 6,000 pages of data from various air, soil and water tests done in and around school grounds, support the contention of treating physicians and school administrators that children in this rural community aren't being poisoned by the air they breathe or the water they drink.

"The air, soil and surface water sampling conducted at the [Junior High/Senior High] site did not identify chemicals at concentrations which could be considered to have health impacts to students, teachers, administrative staff or the public occupying the site," the report said.

Superintendent Kim Cox called the findings of the $70,000 study "excellent news" and stated in an open letter to the community Wednesday that she hopes the findings will allow the district to once again refocus on educating students.

"The best news of all is that our students are doing well," Cox said. "The Board of Education and I want to thank all of our students, staff and parents, as well as everyone in the community for their support and patience as we worked through this situation over the last several months."

The majority of the 18 afflicted Le Roy students were diagnosed individually as suffering from conversion disorder and, collectively, from mass psychogenic illness, also commonly referred to as mass hysteria. Doctors said they suffered physical symptoms rooted in underlying psychological stress.

Over the fall and winter months, the diagnosis was criticized by some worried and angry parents, environmental activists such as Erin Brockovich, and some media. Many questioned whether the girls' illnesses were caused by natural gas wells, toxic waste from a long-ago train derailment, autoimmune disorders or vaccines.

But, with some exceptions, most neurologists have been steadfast in their support of the conversion disorder diagnosis. In April, this case was presented to members of the American Academy of Neurology.

"They supported the diagnosis," Mechtler said.

Mechtler said the students' conditions improved just as the national media moved on to other stories.

"These patients have improved after we requested the media step back from sensationalizing the disorder and putting them on TV," Mechtler said.

Five of the 11 student cases from Le Roy that Dent has seen are fully recovered, Mechtler said. Another five continue to be seen for neurological conditions unrelated to tics, such as headaches and migraines.

"One still has some symptoms but is much better," he said. "I'd say 80 percent better."

Mechtler said he's not surprised at the findings by Leader Professional Services and suggested that Erin Brockovich now go on national TV and take back her dramatic speculation about environmental toxins being the root cause of the disorders.

Leader took numerous samples in and around the school, including the auditorium, cafeteria, athletic fields, and around the school's natural gas wells. In all cases but one, either no hazardous contaminants were found or the contaminants were found to be below state health standards.

One soil sample, collected at the base of a gas well's brine tank, found arsenic, a metal naturally occurring in soil, to be slightly above the state Department of Environmental Conservation standards "but within the range of background concentrations found in native New York soils."

All other soil tests for pollutants, volatile organic compounds, pesticides and more were negative. Mold levels within the school were below those detected outdoors, and testers found no evidence that any soil toxins vaporized into the school.

The smell of natural gas in and around the school's boiler room was a "nuisance odor" but not a genuine health concern. As a result, however, the district has raised the height of the exhaust stacks on the school, Cox said.

"With respect to the costs associated with the testing, the state has so far committed to covering the stack project and 92 percent of Leader's costs, which is truly good news for everyone in the district," the superintendent said.

Cox's letter and the complete report by Leader were posted to the district's website Wednesday afternoon.

Mechtler said all of the students he and McVige have treated are back in school, though not all continue to attend Le Roy Junior-Senior High School.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com