It Could Just Be Stress: The Teens of LeRoy and Conversion Disorder

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More than a dozen girls in this tiny New York town have started displaying Tourette's-like symptoms, but nobody seems to know why.

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In the tiny town of LeRoy, New York (population 7,641), more than a dozen high school-aged girls have been displaying unusual jerks and stutters -- symptoms similar to those of Tourette's Syndrome -- for about three months. More than a dozen is, at the time of this writing, as specific as one can get because the number continues to climb. (A teenage boy and a 36-year-old women have also started displaying these symptoms.) Before the breakout, Le Roy, first settled way back in the 18th century, was best known as the birthplace of Jell-O.

More unsettling than the tics and twitches themselves is the fact that nobody seems to know what is causing them. There are a couple of theories, though, the most prominent of which is that a 41-year-old toxic spill has contaminated the groundwater used by LeRoy Junior-Senior High School (enrollment 460). All of the individuals currently affected aside from the 36-year-old woman, Marge Fitzsimmons, who remembers swimming as child in a quarry near the toxic spill site, attend LeRoy. This possibility has received the most attention because, in January, Erin Brockovich and her longtime associate Bob Bowcock, a water treatment and testing engineer, visited the town to conduct their own environmental tests.

Best known as the woman portrayed by Julia Roberts in the eponymous 2000 movie, Brockovich is the mastermind behind the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history. After years of work as a legal clerk to Edward L. Masry, Brockovich received $333 million for hundreds of clients affected by a harmful chemical compound used to prevent rust in machinery was released into the drinking water of Hinkley, California, by Pacific Gas & Electric.

Criticized as a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning all other possibilities must be exhausted, conversion disorder dates back to Sigmund Freud and was formerly known, more controversially, as hysteria.

Brockovich, who came to LeRoy after receiving an email from a parent of one of the teenagers, believes that this case could be similar to the one that made her famous. She has spent her time in LeRoy around the site of a December 1970 train wreck located about 3 1/2 miles from the school. That month, a train operated by Lehigh Valley Railroad derailed, spilling about 30,000 gallons of trichloroethylene (TCE) and 2,000 pounds of cyanide crystals. Lehigh Valley worked to flush the chemicals -- and accompanying odors -- into trenches by spraying 1,000,000 gallons of water on them over four months, according to a 1999 report from the EPA.

TCE has been linked to cancer, toxicologist Dr. LuAnn White told CNN. But it's not a proven carcinogen. Besides, White said, TCE would be cleared quickly from the body. After a few days, it wouldn't even show up in urine or blood tests -- and any symptoms would disappear. White, the director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health Sciences, said the students would have had to have been exposed to huge amounts of TCE for an extended period of time to show symptoms, and none of them, not even 36-year-old Marge Fitzsimmons, had been born when the TCE left behind by the derailed train cars was as its strongest.

And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the New York departments of environmental conservation and health, and an independent firm hired in December by the high school have already tested the grounds and determined that the spill was cleaned up properly. "All of these agencies and professionals from these agencies have assured us that our school is safe," LeRoy school district superintendent Kim M. Cox wrote in a letter distributed to the community this past week, according to CNN. "There is no evidence of an environmental or infectious cause. Environmental causes would not discriminate (regarding who becomes infected)."

There is at least one other theory, though. On Friday, a pediatric neurologist working out of Buffalo diagnosed three more of the young girls with conversion disorder, bringing the total number to which he has given this diagnosis to eight. "These eight cases all had significant life stressors, a common factor with conversion disorder," he told the Messenger Post. "Tic-like symptoms may be a sign of conversion disorder and conversion disorder is more prevalent in females. Symptoms can be severe." Physicians working out of the DENT Neurological Institute have also diagnosed some of the affected girls with conversion disorder. Among medical professionals -- though, granted, not environmental activists -- there seems to be agreement that conversion disorder is, in fact, the culprit.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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