Town Copes With Cancer Cluster

A blur of sagebrush, along what's called the loneliest road in America, leads to this small farming and military town that boasts of its simpler way of life. A barber is giving $9 haircuts and there's talk of the annual Hearts O' Gold Cantaloupe Festival.

But soon, the talk turns to the children. To 11 kids, all stricken with leukemia that some fear might have something to do with living in the self-proclaimed "Oasis of Nevada."

For 5-year-old Dustin Gross, it started like the flu. Then came the bruises, and his lips turned translucent.

"You can see it in his eyes," Dustin's father says. "When they really start turning dark."

Leukemia Concentration

Acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, but still rare. Just 2,000 new cases are diagnosed annually in the entire United States.

What puzzles people is that 11 of those cases since 1997 have been in and around Fallon, a town of 8,300. Eight cases were diagnosed last year.

This is a cluster, the state health department says. A chance occurrence, perhaps? Or something else that may never be known.

The uncertainty has forced the state to ask for help from national experts. While they look for answers, the residents worry.

Mayor Ken Tedford Jr. has lived in Fallon, 60 miles east of Reno, his whole life. His granddaddy was mayor, and his uncle too.

"We're just kind of a small town," the mayor says. "People worry about each other a lot."

At the downtown Ideal Barber Shop, which doubles as a motorcycle parts shop, former police officer Lyndell Smiley mentions the water as he talks of the kids.

"Nothing wrong with the water, Smiley," barber Joe Rando responds.

Arsenic Water

Water is a common topic in Fallon: It has arsenic levels 10 times the federal standard, and the city has been ordered to clean it up. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical that in high concentrations is poisonous. It's sometimes used as an insecticide or to kill weeds, but has never been linked to leukemia.

A byproduct of the area's soil, the arsenic has been around so long that many doubt it would be making people sick now.

Besides, the children drank from different sources — city water, well water and bottled water.

The arsenic is so accepted that residents don't seem to mind.

"Some more arsenic water?" a waiter at Angelica's Steakhouse asks a customer. A square dance club calls itself the Arsenic Swingers.

"It's a known fact that the water's not the best around here, but I don't know," Mike Story, 50, says at Jerry's Restaurant.

"God knows, he knows the problem."

Seeking Causes

Tammi Beardsley has gone over it repeatedly in her mind.

"You relive those days. 'What did I feed him? Where did we go?' That's what you do when you're a mom and you're desperate."

Her 5-year-old son, Zac, was No. 9, diagnosed in November. He is too sick this day to have visitors or go outside. Too much risk for infection.

Zac was born in Canada, but spends summers and part of each winter in Fallon. He never drank tap water, only bottled.

Of course, Zac's cancer might have nothing to do with what he drank or how he lived. Cancer results from mutant genes. But what causes the mutations? The seeds of Zac's disease could have been there since birth, written into his genetic blueprint.

The survival rate of this type of childhood leukemia is 80 percent. None of the children here has died.

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