Victor Austin never smoked. He drank little. He could bench-press 400 pounds.
Yet, last October, Austin, who works at Boise Cascade's paper mill here, began feeling sluggish, weak and tired all the time. In November, his left side went numb. When he tried to lift his arm, a sharp pain shot through his chest--he imagined it felt like a heart attack.
At 35, Austin was suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a sometimes fatal form of blood cancer involving the lymph nodes. He is one of five workers at Boise's mill in Rumford who have been stricken with the disease in the last two years.
"This is a rare form of cancer and, all of a sudden, there are five of us with it," said Phyllis Parisi, who learned she had the disease in September, 1989, and had to have her spleen removed. "It really makes you wonder."
Some medical researchers suspect that cases such as Austin's and Parisi's are not coincidental. They think people who work in paper mills may face a greater than average risk of getting certain types of cancer and lung disease because they are exposed to the chemicals used to turn wood into pulp and paper.
"Given the existing studies, there's a lot of suggested evidence of risks for cancer," but "I'm not absolutely convinced," said Dr. Paul Henneberger, an assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at State University of New York in Syracuse.
Researchers hope that some answers will come out of a new, $8.8-million study. The American Paper Institute has hired the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health to conduct a seven-year survey of paper workers' health problems.
The study will involve more than 100,000 past and present employees of 50 pulp mills.
Some are convinced that the plants are hazardous, both to the people who work in the mills and those who live near them.
"Pretty much every state that has pulp mills and every town where they're located has their own stories about problems with cancer and other diseases," said Jackie Christensen of the environmentalist group Greenpeace.
Residents of Hartford, Tenn., have taken to calling their town "Widowville" because so many men have died of cancer. Some in Hartford suspect that the cancer has been caused by eating fish contaminated with dioxin and other chemicals dumped into the Pigeon River from the Champion International mill, about 40 miles upstream at Canton, N.C.
Residents of the western Maine town of Jay, about 30 miles from Rumford, have been lobbying for a house-to-house survey to test their suspicions about the effects of pollution from International Paper's Androscoggin mill.
Some people living in Rumford, Mexico and other nearby towns call their area "Cancer Valley."
Boise Cascade officials say there is no clear link between mill wastes and cancer or other diseases.
They say that death certificates, state cancer statistics and the mill's employee medical records show that the cancer rate in the towns of Rumford and Mexico is not statistically higher than elsewhere.
"We're very concerned about it," said George Harad, Boise Cascade's executive vice president of paper. "Obviously, we'd like to know what the facts are. We're also very concerned that people don't whip up hysteria without knowing the facts."
Boise Cascade's 52-acre complex on the Androscoggin River dominates the landscape. Whitish-gray steam and smoke billow from half a dozen stacks.
A sharp odor not unlike a combination of boiled cabbage and rotten eggs wafts through the valley on many days. It is the smell of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and other chemicals used in the process of reducing wood to pulp.
Boise Cascade is the valley's largest employer, providing about 1,650 people with the best-paying manufacturing jobs in the area. The 89-year-old mill produces 1,500 tons of paper a day--coated paper for magazines such as National Geographic and Time, uncoated paper for envelopes and business forms. It also makes the pink-and-blue paper for restaurant packets of NutraSweet.
The mill discharged 1.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 1989, the most recent year for which records are available.
"We have a very, very high cancer rate, but we always have lived with that," said state Rep. Ida Luther. "Nobody can prove anything, but I just can't see how tons and tons of air pollutants going into the air can do you any good.
"At the same time, I don't want to make Boise out to be a villain. They're here to make paper and-- there's no question about it--this valley depends upon that paper mill."
Not everyone is sure the mill is to blame. Dora Fontaine, 63, has smoked for nearly 30 years and believes that that may have caused her to develop lung and liver cancer. She also said it might have been caused by radon, a natural gas found in Maine, coupled with pollution from the mill.
Or her cancer might be hereditary, Fontaine said. Her daughter died of breast cancer 12 years ago. Her father, his two brothers and two of his sisters died of cancer.
"It's just everywhere," she said. "It's all over. A lot of people live in constant fear that they're going to be next."
Others are certain that there is a connection.
Perry Burgi, 45, believes he was exposed to something he should not have been during the 18 years he worked at the mill as an electronic technician. He said he was never sick until he started having severe back pain late last summer. The diagnosis was non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
"I feel pretty strongly most malignancies are caused by the environment, and the only thing that stands out differently in this area is the mill," he said.