I grew up in Batavia, N.Y., about ten miles down the road from the small town of LeRoy. I had just gone off to Cornell a few months before the big train derailment in December, 1970, that spilled cyanide crystals and about 30,000 gallons of the solvent called tricholoroethene onto the railroad bed.
I never imagined that 40 years later, as a psychiatrist, I’d be reading about this incident in connection with one of the most mysterious mass outbreaks of neurological symptoms in recent memory. And yet, this past January, the environmental-activist-cum-movie-star, Erin Brockovich, began investigating a possible connection between that chemical spill and the bizarre outbreak among a group of LeRoy Junior-Senior High School students.
I truly don’t know what explains the strange constellation of signs and symptoms seen in this group of young people. I’m not sure anybody does. Most of the expert opinion has settled on the description of “mass psychogenic illness.”
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