Peter Shelton

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on February 17, 2012

The best medical and investigative minds in America have come up with four possible explanations for the sudden outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms among teenage girls in Le Roy, upstate New York. Two are so unlikely they can be dismissed out of hand. One other possibility is linked, in the historic record and the popular imagination, with witchcraft. And the final possibility sits right there on school grounds, where six natural gas wells are surrounded by dead trees.

Nobody wants to talk about the gas wells, though. 

Last fall, a dozen girls at Le Roy Junior/Senior High School began to twitch uncontrollably, arms swinging like a spastic conductor, heads jerking every 30 seconds or so. Some suffered verbal outbursts, like those that afflict people with Tourette’s syndrome. Some of the girls knew each other; some of them didn’t. Now there are 20 girls, and one boy, who all say they are not faking this, that they just woke up one day with a variety of debilitating tics.

The story was irresistible. Media descended from all over. The girls were sincerely scared. Their mothers were, too. Had they been bewitched? Was there some poison in the water? In the air?

State health experts eliminated one possible environmental cause after another. (The Jell-O museum in this town of 7,500 near Rochester was eliminated from contention early on.) There had been a cyanide spill, a railroad accident, in the town in 1970. Could that have been a long-delayed catalyst? Experts found no evidence. An associate of Erin Brockovich, the California pollution crusader (and eponymous movie subject), has paid Le Roy a visit and collected samples. But it’ll be six weeks before their ground water tests come back.

The focus from the beginning of the investigation was on something called mass conversion disorder, or mass psychogenic illness (MPI). Hysteria for short. Stress manifests, sometimes with the help of a pathogenic trigger, a physical response. The girls believe they are sick. And it is catching. The disorder is real; it’s been documented in factories, in convents, and now, in the age of Facebook, in virtual communities.

MPI is controversial. Its roots go back to diagnoses made by Sigmund Freud of “feminine hysteria.” And yet conversion disorder is generally accepted as the cause (along with some moldy bread) of the “possessed” girls in 17th-century Salem, which resulted in accusations, and capital convictions, of witchcraft.

There are records from the Middle Ages of whole convents of nuns meowing like cats or shouting obscenities. In France in 1518, 400 people started dancing uncontrollably. A number of them danced themselves to death.

Specialists in New York have told the girls that they do not have a physical disorder but a psychological one, one that usually affects girls, usually teenage girls under a lot of stress. Some of the victims have accepted the diagnosis; others insist there must be some hidden, physical cause.

Then, earlier this month a New Jersey doctor came up with one, PANDAS. Pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with strep.

Apparently, some kids with obsessive-compulsive disorders (including tic disorders like Tourette’s) have had the symptoms kick in following strep infections. Strep bacteria were the catalyst.

This doc took blood from eight of the Le Roy girls and found that seven of them had traces of strep. He says he has cracked the case and is treating them with antibiotics.

But most doctors, including the ones from the New York state health department, reject the PANDAS theory. For one, there has never been an incidence of a PANDAS epidemic; cases are always isolated. Second, it is more common in boys. Third, PANDAS is extremely rare, and strep is extremely common. Sixty to 70 percent of a given school population will likely carry strep bacteria.

Finally, there’s the matter of stress. Conversion disorders tend to worsen with stress, and stress was very much present in these girls’ lives, some of it well beyond typical adolescent angst. One of the girls was being secretly filmed by her mother’s boyfriend, then, after he was found out, witnessed his suicide.

It is reported that the kids who have been telling their stories on TV and Facebook have been staying the same or getting worse, while the tics of the kids who have stayed out of the limelight have been getting better.

So, everyone agrees: it’s MPI.

But wait. What about the gas wells? What about those dead trees near the well pads? What about the endocrine disrupters and the known carcinogens in “trade-secret” fracking cocktails? As documented in the film Split Estate, wellheads and tanks are off-gassing all the time. What about that poor woman in Rifle, Colo., Chris Mobaldi, who aged 20 years in the months following the drill rigs’ arrival upwind of her home. Her dogs all got tumors. Her trees died. (Whatever disorder Mobaldi had, it killed her at 63; she looked 93.)

Yes, I know, these are examples from disparate places and circumstances. But the fact is, we have no idea how the byproducts of natural gas extraction are affecting the populace. We are charging blindly ahead with an energy source that everyone from President Obama to your friendly Encana representative will say is essential to cleaner skies and fewer terrorists.

It’s still fossil fuel. It’s still poisonous. It’s still exempt from federal clean-air and clean-water acts (thanks, President Cheney), and largely unexamined. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the bewitched Le Roy girls had begun spewing Tourette’s invective about the *!+$^% f_ _ _ ing gas industry.

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