John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Students in Le Roy, New York, are beset by an unexplained storm of tics and verbal outbursts.
Meet teenager Lori Brownell, the first exemplar of an outbreak of involuntary trembling and verbal outbursts that's drawn health professionals and environmentalists to the town of Le Roy, New York. Brownell is not from Le Roy, hailing instead from Corinth some 450 miles eastward, but she happened to eat dinner in the town last summer right before her life began to get weird.
In one of the early YouTube videos she started filming to document her condition, she explained that she passed out suddenly last August while headbanging at a concert. Then she fainted at a school dance, after which her body became wracked with tremors. She went on meds, but the twitching continued and was soon joined with a violent sort of snorting and what she believes are seizures.
Brownell's disorder wouldn't be all that notable if it weren't for students at Le Roy Jr. / Sr. High School rapidly developing the same type of tics and verbal outbursts. The Le Roy school district and the New York State Health Department began investigating "neurological symptoms associated with a small number of students" in November. That number of students has since climbed to 15, the vast majority being females.
In a January 17 statement, the school district released the results from surveys showing passable air quality and mold-spore counts within the school. It also informed parents that:
The environment or an infection is not the cause of the students’ tics.
There are many causes of tic-like symptoms.
Stress can often worsen tic-like symptoms.
These symptoms are real.
And that's when a group of parents called Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader known for her Oscar-worthy fight against hexavalent chromium in the drinking water.
Brockovich has since identified one possible source of the nest of tics. In 1970, a train passing near Le Roy spilled a load of cyanide and trichloroethene, an industrial solvent and probable carcinogen. The cyanide was recovered, but the solvent was absorbed into the ground. Brockovich sees a potential connection here, telling USA Today that sampling for mold and air quality isn't doing enough: "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."
Also not all clear is how ground pollution would cause tics in students 40 years later. That's why competing explanations for the bizarre behavior are still sharing the spotlight. These include:
- Tourette syndrome: With their hooting and twitching, the students certainly share similarities with sufferers of Tourette's. However, the Tourette Syndrome Association has issued this skeptical comment about Le Roy's affliction: "It is important to note that Tourette syndrome is a childhood-onset condition (average age of diagnosis is 7 years) which is characterized by motor and vocal tics.... The prevelance among children and teens is slightly less than 1%, occurs sporadically in communities and is not contagious in any way."
- Fracking: The school district is surrounded by a ring of natural-gas wells that employ the possibly harmful ground-cracking process. Some folks see a connection.
- Vaccines and an evil government coverup: Sure, why not?
- "Conversion disorder": This diagnosis is often given when all others fail to explain the symptoms. It's what school district seems to be sticking with for now. The disorder is typified by blindness, paralysis or other glitches in the nervous system. Notes the NIH: "Symptoms usually begin suddenly after a stressful experience." Could there have been a particularly killer pop quiz administered before these tics began?