Nevada Town Lives in Fear as Cancer Stalks Its Children

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When one of Barbara Moser's children shows the sign of a cold, or seems listless, she swallows hard and tries to mask her fear.

Then she rushes to the doctor's office and musters the courage to ask the question that is on just about everyone's mind in this rural farm town. Does my child have leukemia too?

Tears well up in Moser's eyes with just the thought that Molly, 9, or Nicholas, 3, might be diagnosed with the disease.

"Nobody knows what to do about it," Moser said, "but I worry in my gut that there's something here causing it."

Since 1997, 14 children who have lived in Fallon have been diagnosed with leukemia, baffling investigators trying to find a cause for the cancer cluster.

Beyond the scientific investigations, the leukemia families have answered hundreds of questions about their lifestyles, including the kinds and sources of foods mothers ate and the air quality where they worked prior to their pregnancies.

"It is easy to find commonalities between two cases, but more difficult between three cases--and quite difficult to find commonalities between four, five or more of the cases," said state epidemiologist Randall Todd.

Either Fallon is a gut-wrenching statistical anomaly, the victim of a cruel convergence of coincidences, or there's something terribly wrong in this community of 8,300, home to Nevada's top high school girls volleyball team.

The grim reality was brought home June 3 by the death of 10-year-old Adam Jernee, a year after his diagnosis. "I've lost everything," said his father, Richard Jernee.

For the parents of other sick children, who hold dearly to the expectation that five years after diagnosis, 80% will recover, Adam's death came as a sudden punch.

"The day Zachary was diagnosed, I felt a hot fear," said Tammi Beardsley, the 6-year-old's mother. "The day that Adam died, that same hot fear came back. An instant, hot fear."

Worry is pervasive in this town straddling U.S. 50, known as "the loneliest highway in America."

Job openings for physicians at the hospital go unfilled; doctors are wary of bringing their families here, hospital officials acknowledge.

Roger Mills, who raises cattle, has lost three customers who normally order sides of beef. "They've become leery of eating food that comes from us."

Sailors assigned to Fallon Naval Air Station, home to the Navy's top aerial combat school, sometimes leave families behind until their tour of duty is over.

Some families are moving away--perhaps for other reasons, but making reference to "the L word" in goodbyes.

"I'm seeing some panicking, particularly from young Navy wives," said the Rev. Robert Porterfield, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church.

"Will my child or friend be next?" he asked rhetorically at Adam's memorial service. "Is there some evil lurking in this valley?"

Doctors and scientists from a host of state and federal agencies are confounded, but not for a lack of suspects.

A jet fuel pipeline threads through town, headed to the military base, but there are no signs of leakage.

Navy pilots sometimes jettison fuel, but Navy officials say it evaporates before reaching the ground.

The region's ground water contains naturally occurring arsenic at levels at least twice the approved federal level--but there is no known link between arsenic and leukemia.

Tests of well water, which would include seepage from irrigation canals, show no extraordinary levels of chemicals or heavy metals, Todd said. Health investigators know of no viral outbreaks.

Many residents claim the culprit is something in the air and say the proof is in their sneezing. Never mind that Fallon is surrounded by hay, alfalfa, desert plants, cottonwood trees, dust and sand.

Doctors plan to conduct DNA testing on each sick child to determine whether genes are mutated or otherwise incorrectly assembled.

More water and soil tests are underway or planned, but so far there is no smoking gun.

Given national averages, experts say Churchill County should experience two cases of childhood leukemia every decade. And indeed, there was one case in 1992 and another in 1999.

But last year, eight children were diagnosed here with leukemia, and another one this year. Four more children who had moved from Fallon were diagnosed with leukemia in 1997, 1999, 2000 and this year, health officials learned.

In all, Todd said, 14 children with direct ties to Fallon have been diagnosed since 1997--far more than would be statistically expected in Fallon and the surrounding county.

The investigation has involved the Nevada Department of Health, the U.S. Geological Survey, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and a host of cancer research centers.

The victims' families and other residents have derided state health officials for moving too slowly. Richard Jernee said he wants to raise money to fund an independent investigation that would move more swiftly and report directly to the families.

Todd acknowledges the frustration. "Science is a deliberate process. People are wanting to make decisions about whether they'll continue to live in Fallon. But at this point, science can't help them. And that's got to be tremendously frustrating for them."

There are more than 100 cancer clusters in the United States, including one in McFarland, Calif., where 21 children were stricken with assorted cancers in 20 years, about three times the average. No cause has been determined there.

"The track record for these kinds of investigations is not good," Todd said.

Many researchers contend that most cancer clusters are inexplicable anomalies. Such resignations have been poorly received elsewhere and would be unsatisfactory here too.

"If they can't pinpoint an answer, do we all pack up and leave?" asked Debbie Olsen, the mother of seven children.

Father and son Drs. James and Tim Hockenberry have diagnosed a half-dozen of the leukemia cases, and have dispatched sick children and their parents on chartered airplanes within an hour of the discovery to cancer hospitals in Oakland and Sacramento.

"I think something here is causing the cancer," the younger Hockenberry said, "but do I think we're going to find the answer? No."

He is compassionate toward parents who want blood tests for seemingly healthy children. "Nose bleeds are normal because of the dry air, and kids get bruises, but when we see those kinds of cases [poor blood clotting, which can be a sign of leukemia], we're running tests," he said.

To help strapped families with medical bills, mortgages or groceries, the town's mayor and his wife, Ken and Jennifer Tedford, established Fallon Families First. The group has raised $50,000 in donations.

"I'm trying to bring patience and calm to town," the mayor said. "But we're all frustrated, because we want the answers to this yesterday.

"I'm not worried about the image of our town. We'll survive that, if there is an image problem. I'm worried about the children and their families."

Dustin Gross was among the first to be diagnosed, in 1999. The 5-year-old is in the second year of a three-year chemotherapy regimen; his hair has grown back from initial treatments that nearly killed him, and when his white blood cell count is good, he plays outdoors with friends.

"We think about the leukemia every day," said his mother, Brenda Gross. "We wouldn't wish that upon anybody."

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