Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist popularised by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie of the same name, has already started an investigation on the causes for the rare syndrome that seems to be mysteriously spreading among teens in the US state of New York. She already has a prime suspect.
In 1970, a train derailed within 5km of the LeRoy High School, in Genesee County, New York. It spilled cyanide and trichloroethylene. The former is a poisonous compound mainly used in the mining of gold and silver and other industry, 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 tumours and Parkinson disease.
The US Environmental Protection Agency said that one ton of cyanide crystals and 132,000 litres of trichloroethylene were spilled in the train derailment. Brockovich — who started to investigate this following a request by the parents of the affected kids — 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 developed 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 syndromes. 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]