Town Copes With Cancer Cluster

ByABC News
February 5, 2001, 9:10 AM

F A L L O N,  Nev. -- A blur of sagebrush, along what's called theloneliest road in America, leads to this small farming and militarytown that boasts of its simpler way of life. A barber is giving $9haircuts and there's talk of the annual Hearts O' Gold CantaloupeFestival.

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

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

"You can see it in his eyes," Dustin's father says. "Whenthey 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 theentire United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing wrong with the water, Smiley," barber Joe Randoresponds.

Arsenic Water

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