Town Copes With Cancer Cluster

ByAngie Wagner

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.

A byproduct of the area's soil, the arsenic has been around solong 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 asksa 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 istoo sick this day to have visitors or go outside. Too much risk forinfection.

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

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

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

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

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

Health officials are looking for a link among the children, whowere toddlers to age 19 when diagnosed. Each family was asked abouttheir 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 astatistical anomaly — just a coincidence, like flipping a coin 11times and having it come up heads each time.

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

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

A ‘Freak Thing’

The state has asked for help from the CDC, the National CancerInstitute and outside epidemiologists. Legislative hearings andtown meetings are planned. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is sending topstaffers from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee toinvestigate.

There's concern about nuclear weapons testing near Fallon in the1950s. Epidemiologists say ionizing radiation is a risk factor toleukemia, but tests for radioactive substances in the water provednegative.

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

The American Cancer Society doctor says there have been studiesof this cancer and its relation to pesticides and chemicalexposures to parents, but nothing is conclusive.

The Navy says it has no reason to believe the base is doinganything 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-ownerof the Ideal Barber Shop. "I think it's just a freak thing."

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

Waiting for Answers

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

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

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

Floyd Sands and his daughter moved away from Fallon, but weredrawn into this mystery when she was diagnosed with the leukemia in1999. She was 19 then, and learned of her condition on her son'sfirst birthday.

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

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