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‘Black Rain’ Baby Baldness Case Advances

(CN) - FirstEnergy lost its challenge against experts who say toxic "black rain" discharged from its coal-fired electric plant caused a 2-year-old to get sick and go bald.

Michael and Jessica Hartle have tapped several experts to opine on toxicology and medical issues for their federal complaint in Pittsburgh against FirstEnergy Generation Corp.

Their daughter had been playing outside on July 22, 2006, when FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield Power Plant along the Ohio River in Shippingport, Pa., allegedly emitted the dark, sooty material known as "black rain."

The 2-year-old child's hair began falling out within days, and she eventually went completely bald, a condition known as alopecia totalis.

Michael Gochfeld, a physician who examined the girl, blamed exposure to toxins contained in the black rain, particularly thallium and arsenic, for GH's alopecia.

Peter Valberg, a Harvard-educated toxicology expert for the defense, insists, however, that "reasonable maximum dose" of thallium that GH received was 100,000 times smaller than the lowest recorded dose known to cause alopecia.

James Smith, the Hartles' expert, counters that Valberg failed to consider inhalation and skin-absorption pathways, and said there is no known minimum thallium dose that causes alopecia. He also said the toxin "more likely than not" led to GH's condition.

The parties moved to preclude and limit each other's expert testimony, but Chief U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti denied most of the motions Wednesday.

Though Valberg may testify that "no evidence" shows that pollution from the plant caused GH's alopecia, a jury must decide whether he wrongly failed to consider certain pathways, according to the ruling.

Conti did, however, bar defense expert Allister Vale from vouching for other experts without independently verifying their analysis. Vale has said that "there is no objective evidence that [GH] was exposed to thallium (or arsenic) in sufficient amount to give rise to alopecia."

The ruling also somewhat limits the plaintiff's experts.

Smith "assumed that GH ate 10 grams of soot per day, that 100 percent of thallium on the skin was absorbed, and that no thallium was eliminated or 'cleared' from the body during the exposure period," Conti wrote. "He admitted that these assumptions were designed to be 'health protective' and produced 'an unrealistically high estimate.' GH's 'actual exposure is likely to be less' than Smith's upper-bound estimate. The layers of 'health protective' assumptions in the upper-bound estimate produce an exaggerated result. This upper-bound estimate could be misleading to the trier of fact and is not helpful."

Gochfeld, the medical doctor, can still testify for the plaintiffs, the court ruled.

"Alopecia is a strong indication of thallium exposure," Conti wrote. "Defendant's expert Vale testified that 'alopecia develops in virtually everyone who is poisoned with thallium.' Gochfeld found that GH's hair loss began two or three weeks after the black rain event. In light of the strong temporal connection between exposure and symptoms and Gochfeld's differential diagnosis ruling out alternative causes, his inability to calculate a thallium dose for GH does not render his diagnosis inadmissibly unreliable."

The court also brushed aside the defendant's claim that GH did not endure other symptoms of thallium poisoning like severe abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, bloody diarrhea, and discolored lines on her nails, or a hair-regrowth pattern consistent with the diagnosis.

"Plaintiffs point to evidence that GH's hair began regrowing a year and a half after the alleged exposure, which is consistent with thallium toxicity," Conti wrote. "This disputed fact is for the jury to resolve."

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