Town Copes With Cancer Cluster

F A L L O N,  Nev. -- 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.

From 1961 to 1982, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated 108 cancer clusters in 29 states and five foreign countries. No clear cause was found. Since the mid-1980s, no CDC staff have been dedicated full-time to investigating cancer clusters.

"At this point, we're not finding things that are strikingly in common," state epidemiologist Dr. Randall Todd says. "We're beginning to look for other sources of information. What has changed in this community?"

Health officials are looking for a link among the children, who were toddlers to age 19 when diagnosed. Each family was asked about their habits and medical history. The only common characteristic: All the children live or have lived in this area.

Is something spreading though the community? Or is it a statistical anomaly — just a coincidence, like flipping a coin 11 times and having it come up heads each time.

Often the cause of clusters can't be found because science can not yet identify what triggers them, says Dr. Michael Thun, head of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society.

"It is extremely rare in a community to pin down a cause or to exclude chance with confidence," Thun says.

A ‘Freak Thing’

The state has asked for help from the CDC, the National Cancer Institute and outside epidemiologists. Legislative hearings and town meetings are planned. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is sending top staffers from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to investigate.

There's concern about nuclear weapons testing near Fallon in the 1950s. Epidemiologists say ionizing radiation is a risk factor to leukemia, but tests for radioactive substances in the water proved negative.

Some residents blame jet fuel dumped by military aircraft at the nearby Naval Air Station. Or agricultural chemicals. Or something from industrial plants. Or, of course, the water.

The American Cancer Society doctor says there have been studies of this cancer and its relation to pesticides and chemical exposures to parents, but nothing is conclusive.

The Navy says it has no reason to believe the base is doing anything to lead to the illnesses.

Some residents don't want to hear any more about it. "I think it's a bunch o' bull," says Madeline Rando, co-owner of the Ideal Barber Shop. "I think it's just a freak thing."

But restaurant workers say they've noticed more customers asking for bottled water. Some parents have brought in water jugs for their children's school classrooms so they can avoid city water.

Waiting for Answers

Dustin shows a picture of himself with no hair. "Leukemia," he says.

A softball tournament to raise money for Dustin's medical bills has become the annual "Dustin Gross Fun Day."

For now, a community waits. Waits to see if epidemiologists can find a link among the children. Waits to see if any more children will become sick. And waits for its young victims to heal.

Floyd Sands and his daughter moved away from Fallon, but were drawn into this mystery when she was diagnosed with the leukemia in 1999. She was 19 then, and learned of her condition on her son's first birthday.

"It's worse than looking for a needle in a haystack," the father says from his home in Mehoopany, Pa. "First you have to find the haystack."