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New State Study Finds No Link Between SOS, Cancer Deaths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no evidence to support allegations that toxic chemicals dumped at a Santa Clarita Valley defense plant led to five cancer deaths in one family that lived nearby, state health officials said Tuesday.

In a new study, the state Department of Health Services said the deaths, which occurred between 1983 and 1989, may never be explained, but suggested that a genetic defect could have contributed to four of the deaths.

The study examined the health history of the family of Diane and Robert Hercules, who moved to Sand Canyon from Culver City in 1979. The family lived three-fourths of a mile away from Space Ordnance Systems, an explosives manufacturer convicted in 1986 of illegally dumping and storing hazardous chemicals.

The most recent deaths came last year when Robert Hercules, a mechanic, died of kidney cancer in February. One of his stepdaughters, Charlotte Hercules Aitken, died of leukemia four months later.

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News of the deaths--and the family’s long struggle with cancer--raised fears throughout the Santa Clarita Valley. At crowded public hearings called to answer questions about the effects of pollution at the SOS site, anxious residents quizzed state and county health officials on whether it was safe to drink water from local wells, even though previous studies had shown that the Hercules family home was connected to the public water supply.

“It’s such an unusual situation,” Dr. Rick Kreutzer, one of the report’s authors, said of the deaths. “It’s easy to see why people got so worried about it.”

The report released Tuesday recounts a sad history of a family that battled disease for a decade.

When the family moved to Sand Canyon, a secluded neighborhood east of the Antelope Valley Freeway, Diane Hercules already was suffering from an illness that eluded diagnosis. She died in 1984 at 39, a year after her son Christopher, 20, died of acute myelocytic leukemia, an unusual form of the disease known as AML.

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Kreutzer said investigators now believe that, given the family history, there is a reasonable likelihood that Diane Hercules suffered from AML as well. Her daughters, a set of twins named Denise and Charlotte, were found to have AML in 1983. Denise died in 1986 at age 20, and Charlotte in 1989 at 23.

Robert Hercules was their stepfather. The children born to Denise Hercules were from two previous marriages. Diane and Robert Hercules did not have any children together.

Researchers have since learned that Diane Hercules had another son, Christopher’s brother, who had been put up for adoption. Now 24 and living out of state, he is in good health, the report said.

The report, referring to the family members by initials, said: “The occurrence of cancers in all but one of D.H.'s children from two husbands suggests that she might possibly have carried a genetic mutation that substantially raised the risk of AML.”

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Previous state and county studies have found no evidence that toxic chemicals traveled off the SOS site.

And even if the Hercules family had been exposed to the chemicals found at the plant, the concentrations would not have been high enough to cause cancer so quickly, the report said. Diane Hercules’ children were diagnosed with AML three and four years after they moved to Sand Canyon.

“The exposure levels we reviewed are not sufficient to cause an appreciable number of cancers or any other health problems,” the report said.

As for Robert Hercules, the report suggested that his work as a mechanic and handyman could have exposed him to potentially hazardous chemicals. He was known to work with a variety of solvents and chemicals, Kreutzer said.

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Robert Hercules moved out of Sand Canyon in 1985 and remarried a year later. His widow, Marilyn Hathaway Hercules, said Tuesday that the report still leaves basic questions unanswered because it based its conclusions on data collected after the dumping of toxic chemicals at SOS was discovered in 1984.

Her husband’s family may have been exposed to large doses of carcinogens shortly after moving to Sand Canyon, said Hercules’ widow, who never lived in the Sand Canyon house.

“I’m not convinced there was low-level exposure,” she said. “I don’t think we have all the facts for a conclusive answer here.”

The report does not rule out the possibility that the Hercules family was exposed to cancer-causing substances, but said such exposure may have occurred outside Sand Canyon.

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The report comes on the heels of a federal study which concluded that chemicals such as trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen, migrated off the SOS site and into domestic water wells. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommended last month that residents of Sand Canyon and nearby Gorman Canyon not drink from local private wells.

Department of Health Services officials have called the federal study misleading and inaccurate, and Kreutzer said the report released Tuesday will be sent to the federal agency.

Meanwhile, the state is compiling a study on the incidence of cancer in Sand Canyon. That report could be completed this summer, Kreutzer said.

SOS was recently sold and is in the process of relocating to Arizona. A monitoring committee of canyon residents, industry experts and health officials has directed the cleanup of the site since 1985.

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