Activists and residents looking for answers as to why so many babies in a tiny California town have been born with severe birth defects say they don't buy the state's findings that there's nothing unusual in Kettleman City.
At an emotionally charged town meeting Tuesday, state health officials told residents that, in looking at babies born with defects in a 22-year period in the area, they found no cause for alarm, that small groupings of birth defects happened "by chance" from time to time.
But residents argued the state's findings didn't include all the babies born with defects; six were identified by the county in two years, while the state counted only four born in 2008.
"This was a bunch of guys up at the state fiddling around with statistics on the computer and slapping it together in a rough report," Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a Kettleman City activist and cousin of one of the affected babies, told The Associated Press.
"This wasn't an in-depth look at anything going on in town."
Her cousin, 20-month-old Emmanuel Alatorre Andrade, was born with multiple facial deformities and missing part of his brain. County officials have counted five other children with deformities -- four of whom have since died -- and residents say a seventh baby, who died in the womb also had similar defects.
Many people in the town blame industrial toxins, in particular the 1,600-acre waste dump run by Chemical Waste Management Inc. Late last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered a full state and federal review of the area for possible environmental contamination.
Chemical Waste has denied its facility played a role in the children's medical problems.
Residents had been heartened that their pleas for help were finally getting heard, and mothers of the children have joined with groups of activists to go door-to-door through the largely Spanish-speaking town of 1,500 to find others who have experienced miscarriages or given birth to deformed children.
Activists working with the residents, chiefly Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, accused the state of using misleading numbers.
"They said it was nothing unusual," Greenaction's Bradley Angel told ABC News' Fresno affiliate KFSN. "But the way they did that is they spread out the numbers over not two years, but 22, and averaged it out. Very unacceptable."
But Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor and chairman of preventive medicine and professor of pediatrics at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said the only way to get an accurate portrait of a possible disease cluster is to study several years of data.
"This is a really difficult issue health departments face when you have a cluster of disease," he said, adding that, while heartbreaking, it is nearly impossible to derive accurate data from seven possiblly affected children.
But Landrigan, who has not worked on the Kettleman City case, said the fact that they all shared similar deformities, including cleft palate, should "certainly raise their suspicions.
"That most certainly increases the odds that there's something going on, and it's not bad luck," Landrigan said. "But it's not proof."
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have called for a closer look at Kettleman City and a moratorium on the proposed expansion of the Chemical Waste landfill.