PARKERSBURG - "Bottle caps for cancer. For every 1,400 caps collected cancer patients receive one free hour of chemotherapy treatment."
Signs and collection bins in the area are trying to collect plastic pop bottle caps to help offset the cost of chemotherapy. People can save the seemingly worthless plastic caps for a good cause.
If it sounds too good to be true, it's because it is.
Photo by Jeff Baughan
American?Cancer Society officials said this week that a recent drive to raise funds for cancer treatments is a hoax.
The exchange of large amounts of plastic bottle caps to offset treatment costs for cancer patients is a hoax, according to Amy Berner, communications director for the West Virginia American Cancer Society.
Berner has been fielding calls all summer from volunteers inquiring about the mythical program.
"When we first heard it, we were skeptical," she said. "We tried to find out as much as possible and we could not find anything."
Berner said it sounded crazy, but she checked; local charities, hospitals, bottling companies, the Internet. Every lead came up empty.
"We found that churches were collecting caps for schools that were collecting for churches. We exhausted every possible place we could. We came to the conclusion it was a hoax."
The hoax is similar to another urban legend.
For years, it was widely believed the collection of aluminum pull tabs would provide free dialysis treatments. The tab story was untrue, but many continued to believe.
Eventually, the Ronald McDonald House Charities seized on the myth. It accepts the pop tabs, which it recycles. The money raised benefits families staying at the Ronald McDonald homes.
The hoax seems harmless, enticing people to collect plastic bottle caps in the hopes of helping cancer victims. But Berner said there are victims; family members who start drives in the hope of helping a sick relative offset the expensive costs associated with treatment. And kind souls who see an easy way to help others.
"It is a horrible rumor, especially for someone who has cancer," Berner said. "Basically, I'm telling people that what they have been doing and what they feel good about doing has been a waste of time."
Jessica Powell fell for the hoax.
Powell, who works at Camden-Clark Memorial Hospital, first heard about the caps for cancer at a family reunion.
"My aunt was talking about it," she said. "I have a lot of cancer (history) in my family."
Powell was moved to help and started a cap collection drive at the hospital. After she was initially contacted by the News and Sentinel Thursday, she called back Friday after looking deeper into the story.
"I feel like a jerk," she said, sounding near tears. "It's a scam. Now I have to go down and tell Camden-Clark."
Powell wasn't the only one who fell for the hoax.
Rosalie Averson, a columnist for the Coal Valley News in Boone County, wrote about a local cap drive in a July column.
She penned the item in hopes of raising cap drives for 10-year-old Jacob Counts, a local boy who suffers from leukemia. Averson said her church - along with others in the area - got a flyer stating the bottle cap collection would offset the cost of chemotherapy treatments.
Averson spoke to the News and Sentinel Thursday.
"Through this organization, if you collect 1,400 plastic bottle caps you get one hour of chemo therapy," Averson said.
"I have a lady in Parkersburg who is bringing 20,000 bottle caps to Boone to give to me Saturday," she added.
When asked about the name of the organization or a contact, Averson didn't have an answer. She'd been in contact with Counts' grandparents and was trying to obtain more information. When Averson called the News and Sentinel on Friday, she too realized she'd been had.
"Nobody seems to know where all this is going," she said. "Jacob has not received any benefits. He has not received any free chemo."
Averson said Counts' grandparents had contacted the Charleston Area Medical Center's women and children's hospital, where Jacob Counts had been receiving treatment.
"They said it was a hoax," Averson said.
Joanie Newman, editor of the Coal Valley News, said the flyer was widespread.
"A lot of churches in our area are doing this," she said. "Kind-hearted people are getting suckered into this."
The kind-hearted people weren't isolated solely to southern West Virginia. Berner said she's fielded calls from Bluefield, Clarksburg, Beckley, Wheeling and Preston County.
"Everywhere. It is not just one area," she said.
Berner said one group from Bluefield called claiming to have enough bottle caps to fill a Mack truck.
"They wanted to know where to redeem them."
Signs and collection containers for the caps have appeared in local restaurants and businesses.
Aleta Brace, of Parkersburg, has collected more than 20,000 bottle caps. She had relatives collect caps from the tennis courts near her home, from grocery stores and even hospitals.
"I get this hometown paper and there was this article about this boy," Brace said, referring to Averson's piece. "I thought this would be nice. It was something everybody could do."
Even when Brace learned the caps for cancer was nothing more than a myth, she still tried to find a silver lining. She called a local recycling center.
"If they will recycle them, I thought I'd give the money to the cancer society, but they won't take them."
Unlike the aluminum pop tabs, the plastic bottle caps are worthless. So Brace is left with 20,000 bottle caps and some wounded pride.
"Everybody's heart was in the right place," she said.
Averson feels awful about perpetuating the myth.
"I feel bad that I had a hand in it, because I put it in my column. I've got to write an apology and explain."
She's also angry.
"If we could trace this back to where all this is coming from, somebody should have to answer for it."
Despite the dead ends, Berner is still optimistic something good will come from this. She remains hopeful there is a grain of truth to the myth.
Friday afternoon Berner said she was told of a man near Bluefield who was allegedly receiving treatments in Pittsburgh and using the bottle caps to offset the cost.
"I don't even have the name of a hospital, but I'll call."