A group of patients suffering from unexplained neurological symptoms and their family members are urging the government of New Brunswick to allow the Public Health Agency of Canada to investigate whether environmental toxins are the cause of their illness.
The group, along with provincial Green Party Leader David Coon and MLA Megan Mitton, released a statement on Tuesday calling on New Brunswick’s Health Minister Bruce Fitch to lift all barriers to a federal investigation. At a news conference the same morning, they also said there are more patients with atypical neurological symptoms than earlier identified, many under the age of 45 and some in other provinces.
“The world needs to know that today there are now 147 patients of concern who are demonstrating a rapid onset of severe neurological symptoms,” said Steve Ellis, who is seeking answers for his father, Roger Ellis.
Roger Ellis is among 48 people who were initially identified between late 2020 and May, 2021, as part of a cluster of patients with what the province referred to as a “potential neurological syndrome of unknown cause.” These cases raised questions among several scientists about the possibility of an environmental cause.
In a report in February, 2022, the province announced there was no mystery illness, and that it had concluded its investigation. The report said an independent oversight committee found the patients were likely suffering from various previously known diseases that had simply been misdiagnosed.
Several patients and family members, however, have disputed this conclusion, saying the oversight committee did not see patients in-person nor test for environmental toxins. It offered them potential diagnoses for illnesses that had already been ruled out.
As documents Mr. Coon provided to The Globe and Mail show, federal and provincial experts had been meeting regularly to investigate the cause. But by May, 2021, Public Health New Brunswick paused these meetings, and asked federal scientists to halt their activities related to the cases until it had completed an internal assessment.
Stacie Quigley Cormier, who has a family member among the initial cases, said she and others were told by top provincial officials, prior to the release of their report, that there were no environmental concerns and no shared symptoms among patients.
“None of this was or is true,” she said, noting that a number of patients have tested positive in recent months for environmental toxins, which were detected above the average limit, including an herbicide called glyphosate.
It’s unclear whether these toxins are related to the patients’ symptoms. According to Health Canada, products containing glyphosate are not expected to pose health or environmental risks when used according to label instructions, and levels found in food are not a health risk.
The group also demanded that provincial authorities stop sidelining their neurologist, Dr. Alier Marrero, who was the first to raise concern about the cases. And they criticized both federal and provincial authorities for ignoring his continued requests for support. He was not included in the oversight committee and was replaced at a special clinic he helped set up for affected patients.
Repeated requests from The Globe to the regional health authority Vitalité Health Network to speak with Dr. Marrero have gone unanswered.
While the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said in an email that it is available to support provinces and territories that request assistance, it stated the government of New Brunswick is the lead authority. It added that PHAC provided support as requested by the province, throughout the investigation, until its conclusion.
In an email, New Brunswick’s Department of Health said that since no evidence of a common cluster of cases was found, additional investigations were not triggered. It also said it is important to note that PHAC supported the results of the province’s investigation. (In its email, PHAC said it acknowledged the investigation’s findings.) The New Brunswick Department of Health did not mention Dr. Marrero by name, but said it would ask the doctor for more information about each of the additional cases.
“If Public Health determines any additional actions are needed, it will respond accordingly,” it said.