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Our view: Cancer cases deserve full public trials

We might never know what caused a cluster of brain cancers in and around McCullom Lake.

But the victims and their surviving family members deserve to present all of their evidence in a court of law.

In 2010, a Pennsylvania judge prematurely dismissed the first of 33 lawsuits against a Ringwood chemical manufacturer. The lawsuits claim that years of air and groundwater exposure to vinyl chloride and other volatile organic compounds caused the plaintiffs’ brain and pituitary tumors.

The judge, Allan Tereshko, ruled that the epidemiologist hired by the plaintiff’s attorney misled the court during his testimony. Tereshko dismissed the case without allowing the remaining three witnesses to be heard.

While that dismissal remains under appeal, Tereshko was reassigned from the civil division this month after being criticized by fellow judges for his handling of a separate case. According to a story in Sunday’s Northwest Herald by senior reporter Kevin Craver, the state appellate court that overturned Tereshko’s 2011 ruling in favor of a defendant insurance company chastised him for not disclosing his wife’s employment with the law firm representing it. Judges should recuse themselves in situations in which their impartiality could be reasonably questioned, according to judicial codes of conduct.

While we agree that Tereshko should have recused himself in the case involving his wife’s law firm, we can’t speak to his motivations there. We do question his decision to dismiss the first McCullom Lake lawsuit without first hearing all of the evidence, however.

The Northwest Herald has been investigating the McCullom Lake story since 2007. One thing we can say with certainty is that, no matter how you look at the evidence, a cluster of cancer cases exists in McCullom Lake and the Lakeland Park subdivision of McHenry, which sits directly south.

By definition, a cluster exists when a greater-than-expected number of similar cancers turn up within a group of people within a specific geographic area over time. Of the 33 plaintiffs, 26 have suffered from some form of brain cancer. Of those 26, 10 are victims of glioblastoma multiforme, which affects only about three people in 100,000.

To us, it’s clear that a cluster exists. What’s not clear is what caused the cancers.

Each of the plaintiffs deserves a full trial on the merits of the case. That means they should be able to present all of their evidence in front of a jury of their peers.

Anything short of that would be a travesty of justice.

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