Acreage family's joy laced with gloom: Will baby boy become cancer victim?

In late 2007, when Yvette Peart's daughter Rodeania, 9, began having headaches, the mother thought she knew why.

"I had migraines myself when I was a girl -- 12 or 13," said Peart, 35. "Or I thought maybe Rodeania had eyestrain."

She gave the girl Tylenol and took her to doctors, but nothing was found. The pains intensified. In early 2008, one of Rodeania's eyelids began to droop.

"The ophthalmologist said that normally didn't happen in kids," Peart recalled. "He ordered a CAT scan right away. That was a Friday."

The next day, the phone rang, and what Peart heard frightened her more than anything in her life -- before or since.

"They found a tumor against her cerebellum, close to her spinal cord," said Peart, her eyes opening wide as she remembered. "The doctor said, 'You need to take her to Palms West (Hospital) immediately.' I was shaking.

"I was pretty much going crazy."

On April 3, 2008, Rodeania underwent eight and a half hours of surgery at Miami Children's Hospital.

"We sat there all those hours afraid we were going to lose her," said her father, Roderick Peart, 44.

Her tumor, an astrocytoma, was at least an inch in diameter and benign.

About 95 percent of it was cut out, but the rest was too close to the spinal cord to remove. Rodeania, now 11, must undergo an MRI scan every six months because the tumor could grow again.

Rodeania isn't the only one Yvette Peart worries about. On Thursday she gave birth to her second child, an 8-pound, 10-ounce boy named Ray-Jay.

"We are told he is all right as far they can tell," said Peart, a registered nurse. "But I'm still worried."

She is concerned because she and many neighbors in The Acreage fear they may be living in a cancer cluster. According to organizers in the community of 50,000 homes, at least 14 children and more than 50 adults have been identified who have had either tumors or cysts on their brains in the past 15 years.

When compared with figures for the incidence of brain tumors diagnosed in Florida per 100,000 residents per year over the past 10 years, those numbers do not necessarily constitute an unusually high rate.

And statistics from the Florida Cancer Data System, which gathers reports of tumors from physicians across the state, show no markedly higher rate of brain cancer in Palm Beach County as a whole. But residents of The Acreage have expressed the worry that because their area forms parts of three towns -- West Palm Beach, Loxahatchee Groves and Royal Palm Beach -- and has three ZIP codes, researchers may not catch the concentration of cancer there.

On Friday, Michelle Dahnke, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, said that while the state often looks at data by ZIP code, it is proceeding differently this time.

"In the case of The Acreage, the best level of diagnosis is the geo-coded level," she said.

Dahnke described geo-codes as a way of breaking neighborhoods "into smaller units than ZIP codes."

Residents of The Acreage use well water, and tests of 50 wells for possible contaminants began last week. In addition, the soil from two local schools will be examined.

Environmental protection officials warn that cancer clusters are rare and it is difficult to link cancers to specific environmental causes. But residents suspect something is wrong right under their feet.

Could it be that years of pesticide use on nearby orange groves tainted well water? Could a Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine plant, with a history of toxic leaks, have unleashed cancer-causing substances into the water table?

Pratt & Whitney representatives have denied that, and environmental officials say the plant is in compliance.

Peart said neither she nor her husband, both originally from Jamaica, has a history of cancer in the family.

"I thought about my childhood and called my mother to ask her when they found Rodeania's tumor," Yvette Peart said. "Then I started questioning myself.

"Did I do something wrong when I was pregnant? But no, I didn't drink or smoke. Was it that I didn't breast-feed her long enough?"

She could find no cause for the tumor.

"And all that time I thought she was the only kid this had happened to," Peart said.

Then three months ago, Rodeania visited Walt Disney World with schoolmates from Pierce Hammock Elementary School in Loxahatchee. Her roommate was a girl named Taylor Dunsford. Rodeania recalled that the two had engaged in a brief conversation the year before.

"She knew about my operation, and she told me her little brother had a tumor, too," Rodeania recalled.

Rodeania did not mention that to her mother then.

The Disney World trip brought the two girls together again, and soon after that Taylor's mother, Jennifer Dunsford, contacted Yvette Peart. Dunsford told her of various other children from The Acreage with brain tumors.

"When she contacted us, that's when we started to think maybe it had something to do with this place," said Peart, sitting in her four-bedroom home.

The Pearts built their house on 1.47 acres in 2002. They had wanted to build in St. Lucie County but decided against it after hearing of a possible cancer cluster there -- 28 cases of brain and central nervous system cancers in children between 1981 and 1996.

No common cause was found for those cancers, but it still made the Pearts nervous.

"So we built here," Yvette Peart said. "This is my dream house. We built it from scratch."

Some residents want the soil tested throughout The Acreage because they say truckloads of recycled landfill containing ground-up garbage -- bottles, nails, old drywall -- were used in the area, and they say it could be contaminated.

Roderick Peart, a stucco contractor who supervised the building of his 4,000-square-foot house, said he knows his soil is fine. His worry is the water.

The family sometimes drank the well water in the first three years they lived in The Acreage. After that they continued to use it to bathe, cook, wash clothes and brush their teeth.

"I'm told the well goes down 80 feet, but for all I know it's only 20 feet," Peart said.

That worries him because of the quality of the water he sees on the surface.

Peart stood next to the narrow canal that runs behind his house, one of many in The Acreage.

"When we moved here, the water was clear, and all kinds of fish were in here -- brim, bluegill, catfish," Peart said. "Now it's dirty and murky. We used to get gators here all the time, and now it's been more than a year since I've seen a gator."

Peart worries that the canal is contaminated. He recalled how his daughter played in sprinklers that drew water from it.

Rodeania's condition is stable. She will enter Western Pines Middle School in Royal Palm Beach this month, and she plays soccer. Attention has turned to her new little brother.

Her father has stockpiled bottled water to bathe Ray-Jay. Yvette Peart worries.

"It's my major concern right now," she said. "I'm still scared."