Cancer mystery still plagues California farm town McFarland

'Cancer cluster' in McFarland, Calif., was never explained. An EPA study revives old fears and stigma

For the better part of two decades now, this tiny farm town on the outskirts of Kern County has baffled health officials and government scientists searching for a deadly agent in the environment.

McFarland has seen 21 of its children stricken with cancer since 1975 -- more than three times the expected number for a community of 8,000. Surely, it was some chemical lurking in the fields, residents reasoned. McFarland wasn't called the "Heartbeat of Agriculture" for nothing.

So when science failed to pinpoint a culprit -- some experts guessed it was pesticides in the drinking water and others chalked it up to a statistical snag -- it left this San Joaquin Valley town in a peculiar limbo, neither damned nor vindicated. Part of McFarland is grateful that it dodged a verdict. Part of McFarland, especially the farmworkers whose children became sick or died, feels cheated.

Now a new team of investigators, this one from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has converged on the poor, mostly Latino town with a promise to test the water, air and soil in a more definitive way and determine once and for all if McFarland is safe.

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The study is a year from completion, but already it has brought back bitter feelings, setting a hard line between those wanting to put the "cancer cluster" behind them for the sake of economic development and those pressing the EPA to do all it can to find a cause, no matter the cost to the town's renewal.

"We're a community stuck on hold," said Betty Fain, a longtime resident who applauds the new study but fears that it will only end in the same enigma.

"You get angry but you don't know where to direct your anger. You want someone or something to blame but there's no one or nothing to point a finger at. I hope these new tests come up with something, but if they don't, we're going to have to accept that."

Like most of the town's movers and shakers, City Manager Gary Johnson works hard to punctuate the positive. His tour of McFarland takes in the housing tracts and privately run prison under construction, the new McDonald's that took no shortage of courting, and the baseball diamond where every bounce off the genuine clay is a true one. He manages to bypass one landmark: the neighborhood of stucco houses where the first cancers were discovered.

"It's seven people who are moaning and griping and making the EPA come in," said Johnson, who also owns the local hardware store. "We've got 8,000 other residents who prefer that the feds leave town.

"I have a daughter who is 8 and was born in the middle of this and I would have left town if I thought there was a danger."

A place this small normally doesn't boast an east and west side, but California 99 slices McFarland right in two -- its main street full of dead and dwindling businesses, its Pentecostal churches and fruitless mulberry trees, its lush fields of grapes, walnuts, kiwis, almonds and cotton.

One reason McFarland ranks among the 10 poorest cities in the state (an annual per capita income of $6,056) is that very little of the farm bounty passes through the local economy. Much of the land is in the hands of growers who live and trade elsewhere. There are no tractor or spray-rig companies in town, no stores selling seed.

Rather, this is a community of second-generation farmworkers, many of whom followed their parents into the fields or moved to clerical jobs or welfare. The population is 94% Latino, and downtown has a south-of-the-border feel, with its El Cha Cha Cha bar and beauty salon advertising $6 cortes de pelo (haircuts).

City leaders tend to blame the economic woes on the cancer cluster, and certainly the enduring stigma and media spotlight haven't helped. But years before Jesse Jackson, Cesar Chavez and various Kennedys marched through town chanting the ills of chemical agriculture, McFarland began to bleed.

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Many of the Dust Bowl refugees who built and propped up a thriving downtown passed away in the 1960s and '70s, and their children moved to the big city. A lot of Main Street went with them.

"Schneider's Drug Store, Ruth's Dress Shop, Diffy's Hotel, Home Cafe, Safeway Market -- they're all gone," said Fain. "So is the theater, the feed and seed store, the Dairy Delight where we held street dances at night. One by one over years. And it had nothing to do with the cancers."

The cancers came to the public's attention in 1984 after Connie Rosales was told that her teenage son had lymphoma. She began comparing notes with other mothers in her neighborhood and alerted county health officials to the stunning news: On her tiny block alone, five children were stricken with cancer. From 1984 to 1992, nine more children -- toddlers and a teenage football star -- were added to the list.

Of the 14 cases, half ended in death. Mario Bravo died of liver cancer. Tresa Buentello succumbed to cancer of the adrenal gland. Frankie Gonzalez lost a leg to bone cancer, and then lost his life.

The chances of so many childhood cancers concentrated in such a small place ranged from 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 -- a cancer cluster, experts determined. County and state investigators began collecting water samples from houses and municipal wells and tested for about 100 chemicals. They scraped soil samples from parks, playgrounds, yards. They even measured radio waves from a Voice of America transmitter at the edge of town. Nothing conclusive turned up.

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Some of the best epidemiologists in the country were called in as advisors. The task force widened the net to compare childhood cancers in four farm counties in the San Joaquin Valley. Again, no pattern was found.

If the culprit was an agricultural contaminant, why were the children suffering from so many different kinds of cancer -- liver, lymph node, blood, bone, eye, adrenal, kidney? And what about the other kids suffering weight and hair loss and a variety of other inexplicable ailments?

These were questions that government and university scientists and health officials could never answer. The investigation ended in 1992 with some scientists leaning toward a farm chemical and others concluding that it was a "random aggregation," something akin to flipping a coin and landing heads a dozen times straight.

The inability of science to pinpoint a cause ripped the town into angry factions. Some families accused health officials of yielding to pressure from the big farm interests and conducting a halfhearted probe. Others accused Cesar Chavez of exploiting the cancer victims to publicize pesticide dangers and raise funds for his struggling United Farm Workers union.

"How could the experts call it a complete investigation when they never took deep core samples of the soil or tested the air?" asked Marta Salinas, a farmworker who left McFarland in 1991 out of concern for her children's health. "We found that some of the houses were built near an old shed where they used dangerous chemicals to ship potatoes."

The investigators went away but after a brief lull the cancers came back: The disease has been diagnosed in seven more children since 1992. One mother, Rosemary Esparza, watched her son, Adrian, survive eye muscle cancer a decade ago and go on to college only to learn that her 13-year-old daughter, Raquel, now has ovarian cancer.

After learning of the new cases, Salinas and a handful of residents petitioned the EPA.

The federal agency looked over the previous task force study, found it lacking in spots and agreed to conduct a more thorough inquiry.

The test kits and questions have returned to this town, and that doesn't please local business and civic leaders, many of whom never thought there was a problem in the first place. The federal team -- and the reporters who invariably follow -- are coming at the most inopportune time, they say. After years of operating in the red, the town is finally tasting the fruits of revival.

"We're just beginning to wipe away the stain," said Russell Coker, a local contractor who has two young healthy children.

He said he knew the town had turned a public relations corner when his fellow contractors down the road in Bakersfield stopped kidding him about his cooler filled with McFarland water. "Now all this is back in the news and we're a town with a stigma again.'

For City Manager Johnson, a Kern County native who carries a tinge of his family's Tennessee background in his voice, McFarland's growth gets personal. Every year, when the state comes out with its new population figures, Johnson drives out to the local highway sign and adds a few more numbers to the grand total.

"We're 8,013," he says, munching on a bag of Japanese party mix while driving a visitor around town. Stop one was the McDonald's. Johnson said the area franchise holder didn't think McFarland could sustain the restaurant, so he had to persuade the corporation to invest. "We did so well the first year that the franchiser decided to exercise his option. Once McDonald's came, Chevron was willing to locate across the street."

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Johnson drove past the gleaming new middle school built with a $9.2-million local bond, and then the high school. "Our biggest claim to fame isn't the cancer cluster but our cross-country team, coached by Jim White. We've won five state championships in a row. It's unheard of."

When asked how it was done, Johnson answered with a straight face. "The water. They tank up before every meet. That and beans."

On an old almond orchard, the Wackenhut Corp. out of New York was putting the finishing touches on one of its chain of private prisons, this one for minimum-security parole violators. "That's 240 jobs and 1,000 inmates," he said. "And we're going to claim all of them as residents."

He pulled up to La Jolla Estates, one of two housing tracts under construction, and chatted with Bakersfield builder Earl Leach. He introduced his passenger as one of those newspaper reporters.

Leach lit up. "The last time the government came, they asked me to stop building for a few months and it was a five-year moratorium. All for a cluster that was an imaginary thing."

Leach said no government scientist was going to cause him to lose faith in McFarland, and he was putting his money to match his mouth -- on 37 new houses, all rentals. "I'm 76 years old. These rentals work while you sleep."

Salinas said the focus on commerce was regrettable. "All I hear is that this study is bad for business. They seem to think that a McDonald's is more important than a child's life."

A few weeks ago, the EPA team began collecting water samples from the municipal well. Once the water is analyzed for more than 300 chemicals, the air and soil will be tested. Neither side is likely to be pleased. The study won't reconstruct the past. It will only measure what's in the environment today.

"We're not trying to figure out the cause of cancers in the 1980s," said Elizabeth Adams, the EPA official in San Francisco who is overseeing the study. "We're trying to figure out if McFarland is safe today."

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