Erin Brockovich investigating mystery illness affecting NY teens

Famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich has begun a private investigation into a mysterious illness affecting more than a dozen teens in Le Roy, New York.

Le Roy was home to a dangerous chemical spill 40 years ago and the children's symptoms--facial tics and verbal outbursts--may be connected, Brockovich tells USA Today. "We don't have all the answers, but we are suspicious," Brockovich said. "They have not ruled everything out yet. The community asked us to help and this is what we do."

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She told USA TODAY on Thursday that after families of affected teens and other community members asked her to look into the Le Roy case, she has spent the past week studying federal and state reports of a 1970 train derailment that spilled cyanide and an industrial solvent called trichloroethene [TCE] within 3 miles of the high school attended by the 12 girls who started reporting neurological symptoms last fall. Three other teens, including one boy, are reportedly experiencing similar symptoms.

An Environmental Protection Agency report issued in 1999 says that the cyanide crystals were removed after the spill but 35,000 gallons of trichloroethene were absorbed into the ground.

A more-detailed description on the New York State Department of Health website describes how TCE spills can affect people:

TCE can also enter air and groundwater if it is improperly disposed or leaks into the ground. People can be exposed to TCE if they drink groundwater contaminated with TCE, and if the TCE evaporates from the contaminated drinking water into indoor air during cooking and washing. They may also be exposed if TCE evaporates from the groundwater, enters soil vapor (air spaces between soil particles), and migrates through building foundations into the building's indoor air. This process is called "soil vapor intrusion."

Brockovich gained national notoriety after a 2000 film bearing her name and about her efforts against PG&E to expose a toxic chemical coverup in California. Currently, Brockovich is a consultant for the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg and several other agencies.

The school district where all of the affected children are currently enrolled issued a statement denying any connection between the chemical spill and the children's condition, saying, "Medical and environmental investigations have not uncovered any evidence that would link the neurological symptoms to anything in the environment or of an infectious nature."

Still, Brockovich says she'll continue her investigation, which began about a week ago. "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," she said.

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