updated 4/6/2004 9:43:32 AM ET 2004-04-06T13:43:32

New Jersey’s senators urged federal scientists to determine if a cluster of deaths among people linked to a defunct racetrack was caused by eating mad cow-tainted meat.

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The letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention follows reports of a woman’s research into the deaths of nearly 20 people who worked at or frequented the Garden State Racetrack in Cherry Hill between 1988 and 1992. All died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a brain-destroying disorder — or neurological problems possibly caused by it.

Investigation urged
Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg and Jon S. Corzine, both Democrats, pressed the CDC director Dr. Julie L. Gerberding for an investigation.

“CDC scientists will use the best available science to respond in a timely and thorough way” to the senators’ letter as to whether they will study the cases, spokeswoman Christine Pearson said Monday.

Janet Skarbek, whose mother worked at the racetrack and had a colleague die of the disease, has been compiling cases of humans she believes were killed by mad cow disease.

CJD comes in two known varieties: variant CJD, which is caused by eating tainted beef, and classic CJD. In classic CJD, the source is unknown in about 85 percent of cases, but doctors generally believe beef is not the cause. The other classic CJD cases are blamed on an inherited genetic mutation or use of contaminated instruments or tissue in surgery.

According to government estimates, CJD accounts for about 300 deaths a year in the United States — all of them believed to be of the classic variety. Skarbek said the number of cases linked to the track are many times what would be expected for classic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

“I think it’s wonderful that they’re getting involved,” Skarbek said of the senators.

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