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Mysterious Cancer Clusters Leave Anxiety in 3 Towns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suppose your town is being stalked by a serial killer. Five people have been slain so far, all of them children. Detectives track several suspects, but eventually the trail turns cold. Fear lingers, and windows are latched snugly each night. Who can say, after all, when the killer might strike again?

Such is the state of life in McFarland, a threadbare town of farmers and farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley. The killer is not a man but a disease, one that struck with a vengeance for reasons that California’s brightest scientists cannot explain.

McFarland is home to the West’s best known cancer cluster. Between 1975 and 1989, 13 youngsters ranging from toddlers to teen-age football stars came down with cancer--an unusually high rate for a town of 6,200.

The community weathered the initial shock, sustained by a faith that the puzzle would be solved and the cancer’s cause eliminated. Instead, six years of scientific studies that ended in 1991 failed to expose a culprit, leaving McFarland battered and many of its people anxious, confused and convinced that the experts did not--or would not--search far enough.

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In McFarland’s schools, children run to the nurse with every lump or sore they spot. In the shops, owners grumble that business is not what it was “before the cancer.” Stained by the disease scare, the city is fiscally ailing. Replacing police with county sheriff’s protection saved a bit of money, but McFarland may have to unincorporate if its fortunes do not rise soon.

Meanwhile, apprehension hovers over the community’s quiet residential streets: When will the cancer return? Will my child be next?

“Something has to have caused this, and with all the brainpower they brought in here I just can’t believe they didn’t find it,” said Jim Price, a McFarland High School volleyball coach whose daughter Kiley, 10, lost a kidney to a malignant tumor. “This town has been torn apart. . . . There are a lot of people with a lot of anger. Maybe if they gave us the answer, we’d have something to be angry at.”

Similar frustrations echo through two other California towns notorious for their unsolved cancer clusters--Earlimart, a tiny farm community just north of McFarland, and Rosamond, near Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.

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In Earlimart, grape-picker Gonzalo Ramirez is certain that exposure to pesticides gave his 7-year-old daughter, Natalie, near-fatal cancer of the kidney. The shaken father said he believes that government experts will not confirm his theory because they “don’t want to go up against the farmers,” who wield considerable influence in this state. As for fieldworkers, “we just don’t count for much,” Ramirez said.

In Rosamond, JoAnn Tarpley struggles with her own set of suspicions as she relives again and again her son Greg’s tortuous death from brain cancer. “Why do they keep us in the dark?” asked Tarpley, her jaw twitching angrily as she forms an answer to her question. “It’s like there’s a cover-up by the state, and we’re just left here wondering who’s gonna get sick next.”

Psychologists say inexplicable crises such as cancer clusters inflict emotional devastation on the families and towns they strike. Unlike accidents or natural disasters, which can be attributed to a specific force, a mystery as complex as cancer rarely has a single identifiable cause. Its victims are left with no person or thing to blame for their pain.

“This causes people to feel they have lost all control over their lives, and that creates tremendous stress,” said E. Scott Geller, a behavioral psychologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In the case of the clusters, such stress can increase when scientists search for--and fail to find--a responsible agent. “The feeling is: ‘Gee, even the experts don’t know what’s causing this, so we’re really in trouble,’ ” Geller said.

Parents also may be consumed by a “debilitating sense of guilt,” said Adeline G. Levine, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo who studied residents of Love Canal, the neighborhood evacuated after toxics leaked from a dump. “Even if it’s irrational, and they played no part in causing the problem, they assume blame for this terrible threat to their children.”

There is another layer of trauma, psychologists say. Although their instinct is to flee an environment they view as perilous, many residents of cancer cluster towns are trapped by economics. Some say they cannot sell their homes because of their communities’ notoriety; others are tethered by jobs.

“I look at the mountains and I think maybe up there is a clean place where my family would be safe,” Ramirez said one evening, his eyes fixed on the wooded Sierra Nevada peaks poking up through the valley haze. “But my work is here. I have no money to move.”

McFarland first began talking about cancer in early 1984. Connie Rosales, whose teen-age son, Randy, had been diagnosed with a type of lymphoma, sounded the alarm. Everywhere she turned, it seemed, there was a child stricken with the disease. Mario Bravo died of liver cancer. Tresa Buentello was killed by cancer of the adrenal gland. Frankie Gonzalez lost a leg to bone cancer, and then lost his life.

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On Rosales’ street there were five cases--out of 17 homes.

Health officials concluded that the cases added up to a cluster. The cancer rate in McFarland, they determined, was about four times what would be expected in a town its size.

Before long, politicians got wind of McFarland’s plight. Jesse Jackson led Hollywood celebrities on a march through town, while Cesar Chavez used the cancer victims to illustrate pesticide risks and raise money for the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott. McFarland, which had been just another dirt-poor town tucked amid the valley’s cotton fields and almond groves, was suddenly in the spotlight.

All of this left the townsfolk divided. Some welcomed the attention, believing exposure would bring a quick cure for their problems. Others dismissed the cluster as a statistical accident, or complained that the publicity would hurt McFarland right when it was on the cusp of growth.

Most people seemed to agree on one thing: If the experts would come in and get to the bottom of the mystery, residents would feel safe and life could return to normal.

The experts came, and their labors were exhaustive. They tested the water. They tested the air. They studied dirt--scraped from back yards and school playgrounds--and measured radio waves from a Voice of America transmitter nearby. They interviewed victims’ parents, and searched their homes for a cancer suspect--household chemicals or asbestos, perhaps.

Also studied--and dismissed as unrelated--were four pesticides used heavily in the region because scientists surmised that something in the environment might have triggered the cancers.

Finally, researchers checked the general health of McFarland’s children, theorizing that if something was causing cancer, it might also cause an increase in other diseases. No smoking gun was found, but other problems were revealed: Of 1,744 children screened, 71% needed follow-up medical treatment; 24% had anemia, an indicator of malnutrition; 40% had vision problems and 36% needed dental care.

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Last year, after what may be the longest cancer cluster investigation ever conducted, the state scientists gave up. Nothing they had unearthed could explain the cancers; a panel of independent experts who guided their work concluded that enough had been done.

“We didn’t find a specific cause, but we did not disprove anything either,” said Dr. Richard Kreutzer, a lead state investigator on the cluster. “I’m afraid that is the limit of science. . . . We just can’t say with assurance whether something was going on, or whether McFarland had a clump of these cases just by chance.”

In the world of cancer cluster research, that uncertain conclusion is common. Success in pinpointing a cause typically comes only in clusters where exposure was measurable and the cancers were the same kind. In Boston, a cluster of vaginal cancers was linked to DES, an anti-miscarriage drug taken by the victims’ mothers.

“Our batting average has been very poor in explaining these clusters, and we know that no matter how much we try to show the public what we’re up against, hope springs eternal,” said Dr. Raymond Neutra of the state Health Department. He likens residents of cancer cluster towns to “the wife of a man who is lost at sea. The searchers send out the helicopters, and after several days, they know there is no hope. But the wife insists the search must go on. When it ends, she feels betrayed.”

So it went in McFarland. What the people craved were answers--and peace of mind. Instead, some feel that the city was cast adrift.

“We have this cloud over us, and we were hoping that an explanation would come out to chase it away,” said Josephine Fraire, a mother of five who has lived in McFarland for 37 years. “When they couldn’t give us anything, it left the community very scared.”

Nora Gonzales, another mother, said she is on edge constantly--even though there have been no more known childhood cancers since 1989. Like many of her neighbors, Gonzales closely watches her three children “for any sign of sickness.” But she feels powerless to protect them: “I put all my trust in God now, because he is the only one who can help.”

Across town, hardware store owner Darrell Stinnett said he is not too worried about his health, but is darn concerned about his future. “Since the cancer came, my business has gone straight downhill,” said Stinnett, who is also the Chamber of Commerce president. McFarland has “a stigma attached to it now,” he said, and “people just stay away.” The main grocery store went under awhile back, and a few smaller stores have closed. It seems even residents in the area will drive to Bakersfield for goods they can get in town.

Fourteen miles to the north is Earlimart, where the cancer cluster included six children. State scientists tested the water and interviewed the victims’ parents, but the inquiry ended there. Joe Cardona, whose barber shop is a sort of social crossroads in town, said many residents feel “abandoned by the government.” Those who are fieldworkers, meanwhile, believe that pesticides are to blame for the cancers but are afraid to speak out, for fear of offending farmers and losing their jobs.

“If you are seen as a troublemaker, then you show up the next day and your boss tells you your job is gone,” said Cardona.

But in March, anxieties surged when Mirian Robles, 10, succumbed to leukemia--the second cluster victim in Earlimart to die. Gonzalo Ramirez, whose daughter has recovered from her kidney cancer, grew angry: “I feel as though our children are experimental rats. Will it take an epidemic before something is done?”

At the Robles home--a makeshift house that is part trailer, part plywood--Mirian’s tiny room remains untouched: pink lace curtains and a neatly made bed covered with stuffed bears. Maria Robles quit work in the vineyards to care for her daughter during Mirian’s battle with cancer, but last month she rejoined the pickers--reluctantly. “It is hard for my mother, because she believes the pesticides killed Mirian,” said Ana Robles, 17, one of Mirian’s two sisters. “It seems so obvious to me. The pesticides kill bugs, so why not us?”

In Rosamond, a snapshot view would suggest that the community is coping well with its unsolved cancer cluster. Despite the recession, the town is enjoying a building boom, and recently added its second stoplight. Later this summer, Rosamond’s first supermarket will open.

For five years, state experts have studied two dozen hazardous-waste sites that many residents blame for Rosamond’s cancers. At one site, they found levels of dioxin--a carcinogen--at many times the safe limit in a pile of ash. But they have been unable to trace a link between any environmental toxin and the cancers that struck eight Rosamond children, five of whom have died.

This pleases Bobby Maley, who owns an auto shop and is the self-appointed cancer cluster expert at the Chamber of Commerce. Maley, who favors cowboy boots and has a face creased by 37 years of desert sun, said he knew all along that his town was safe: “I raised three children and ran a business in the middle of all this, and I am perfectly healthy.”

Mike and Rachel Hill share Maley’s view. Unable to afford a home in the Los Angeles Basin, the couple moved with their two children to Rosamond--even though Mike Hill works 80 miles away in Beverly Hills, where he is a police officer.

“We had heard about (the cancer cluster), but we read a report the developer gave us and it said it was just a fluke,” Mike Hill said. The only time the subject comes up now, Rachel Hill said, is when the kids get sick: “Then our friends back (in Los Angeles County) will say: ‘Oh, I wonder if it’s cancer.’ ”

In other neighborhoods, the cancer cluster is not treated as old news. Jean Butler worries about families like the Hills. She lost her son, Billy, to cancer, and she wonders whether other people’s children are safe. “The Chamber of Commerce says everything’s fine, and they want us to keep quiet because it’s not good for growth. Well, excuse me, but everything’s not fine when all these children are dying.”

Like Butler, Tarpley is angry that there has been no explanation for the cancers that claimed her son. She would like to close that painful chapter, and she would like some ammunition to fire back at some of the “city fathers around here.” One suggested that the cancer victims “were all dope-smokers or on welfare,” said Tarpley, who works in the cafeteria at the local elementary school.

Back in McFarland, Mayor Ruben Garza senses that a renaissance like the one in Rosamond lies ahead for his beleaguered city. At the moment, he is pinning his hopes on a company that wants to build a privately operated prison in town. With a little luck, the deal will be struck and McFarland--now the ninth-poorest community in California, with an annual per capita income of $6,056--will turn a corner.

“The tragedy in our community was tremendous, and our scars will always be there,” said Garza. “But we have to look ahead. We have to move forward.”

Three Towns’ Tragedies

Despite years of study, experts have been stumped by cancer clusters that have killed children in three small California towns. Because of the mysteries surrounding cancer, scientists say they can rarely explain why the disease strikes certain communities at a higher than expected rate. With nothing to blame for their tragedy, residents are left scared and confused.

McFarland, Kern County

Years of cluster: 1975-1989.

Cases: 13, 5 deaths.

Cancers: Types include liver, kidney, eye, adrenal, bone.

Rate: About four times that expected for population.

Earlimart, Tulare County

Years of cluster: 1980-1989.

Cases: 6, 2 deaths.

Cancers: Types include kidney, leukemia, lymphoma.

Rate: About 2 1/2 times that expected for population.

Rosamond, Kern County

Years of cluster: 1975-1984.

Cases: 8, 6 deaths.

Cancers: Types include brain, kidney, muscle.

Rate: About 4 1/2 times that expected for population.

SOURCE: California Department of Health Services


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