Birth Defects--Spill Area Residents Seek Answers

Times Staff Writer

When the state's public health chief, Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, began listing deformities found among infants in a neighborhood affected by a major chemical spill, his audience of area residents became particularly attentive.

One child was born with a "rearranged heart," he told the residents who gathered this week in a high school gymnasium near the spill site. Two other children had been born with major hernias. Another had a cleft lip and palate. Still another was born with webbing between the toes. One infant had no anal opening. Another had low-set ears and a small, recessive chin.

The damage was certain and thoroughly documented. Altogether, 13 children of 145 born over a two-year period in a South San Jose neighborhood where water supplies were contaminated had significant malformations, three times the rate of deformity in a nearby community with no water problems. And then there were the relatively large number of major heart defects and a miscarriage rate more than twice as high as expected.

The three-year state study had confirmed this largely middle-class community's worst fears.

Distrustful Citizenry

But like many other public health studies, the findings did not satisfy a distrustful citizenry, who wanted a clear statement of who was responsible for the problem.

State officials, however, insisted that the evidence simply did not support placing the blame squarely on the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Co., where chemicals leaking from an underground storage tank had contaminated two wells feeding into the local water supply.

But who should be blamed was only one of a number of questions that local residents wanted answered. Even if the incidence of birth defects and miscarriages now appears to be dropping, could they expect an increase in cancer? Is it safe to have more children? Are a 5-year-old's recurring rashes caused by chemicals in the water? And what effect could the polluted water have on the intelligence of the children who had been drinking it?

"Some of us are deciding whether to stay or move," said a local resident, whose openly hostile questions frequently were greeted by the bright lights of television cameras during a public forum here Wednesday night.

No Definite Answers

In most cases, the answers were not as reassuring or as definite as many of the residents would have liked.

And even when there was cause for reassurance, the crowd in the gymnasium bleachers appeared skeptical.

Water from the Great Oaks Water Co., which serves the community, is now safe to drink, public health chief Kizer said. He said the contaminated wells were closed in late 1981, Fairchild's efforts to clean up the site were continuing and frequent sampling of the district's water showed no traces of contamination.

But during the meeting, a neighborhood resident, Alexander R. Torres, distributed a brochure for a water filtration system he was selling. "Your drinking water may be poisoning you!" the brochure warned. Despite the assurances, Torres said he believes that is still the case in his neighborhood.

Repeatedly, the health officials tried to explain the limits of their scientific work. Because careful monitoring for toxins in water supplies has only recently been required, there was no way of knowing precisely when the contamination had begun and which households might have been most severely affected.

Without that kind of information, it will be extremely difficult to fix the blame for the increase in problem pregnancies.

The health officials insisted that they were hiding nothing, that the science of epidemiology was painfully slow and often expensive as well, and that they might never answer all of the community's questions.

At one point during the community meeting, Dr. Raymond R. Neutra, chief of the state's epidemiological studies section, complained about a local newspaper report that suggested that the state was trying to cover up what it knew.

He explained that he and other government scientists were frequently pummeled by both sides in health controversies--by local people accusing them of a cover-up and by industry "saying that these crazies from the health department are trying to crucify us."

One of the state scientists said privately: "I've been screamed at and hollered at and called a Nazi."

Neutra appealed to the audience: "You've got to make up your mind yourself whether you think this is a cover-up job."

There were many in the audience who were openly skeptical and remained so.

"Personally, I don't think we're going to hear the complete truth," said Jay Lohr, a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. splicer, who lives and works near the Fairchild plant. Lohr cannot understand why state health authorities would not place the blame for their findings on Fairchild. "There was no other spill in this area," he said.

Three years ago, soon after she learned of the chemical spill, Lorraine Ross, a mother whose daughter Juliana was born with multiple heart defects, asked county health authorities to investigate what she was convinced was an excess of birth defects in the housing tracts served by the Great Oaks Water Co.

At that time, it was the state public health officials who were skeptical because there was little evidence that the chemicals involved in the Fairchild spill, trichloroethane and dichloroethylene, could cause birth defects. Now, they say, the chemicals cannot be ruled out as a cause.

Ross is one of several hundred present and former residents suing Fairchild and others they believe responsible for their health problems.

"My daughter," she said, "will be a cardiac patient all her life."

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