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July 23, 2014

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Town baffled by rash of childhood cancer

FALLON, Nev. - Up on Rattlesnake Hill, the white cross, small and proud, overlooks this rural farming and military town that boasts of its simpler way of life. Just off the main road lives 5-year-old Dustin Gross. He was one of the first.

Now there are 11 - all children stricken with leukemia that some fear might have something to do with living in the self-proclaimed "Oasis of Nevada."

"You can see it in his eyes," Dustin's father says, glancing at his son. "When they really start turning dark."

It started out like the flu. Then came the bruises, and his lips turned translucent. The leukemia was taking over, just as it had the children before him and just as it would the children after him.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, but still rare. Just 2,000 new cases are diagnosed annually in the United States.

What puzzles people is that 11 of those cases since 1997 have been in and around Fallon, a town of 8,300 residents. Eight were diagnosed last year.

This is a cluster, the state health department says. A chance occurrence, perhaps? Or something else that might never be known.

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About 60 miles east of Reno, along what's called the loneliest road in America, Fallon emerges from the blur of sagebrush dotting the desert landscape.

Mayor Ken Tedford Jr. says there's a western spirit alive in the people here. He's lived here his whole life. His granddaddy was mayor and his uncle, too. There's a street named after the family, Tedford Lane of course, and they also own a tire shop and a construction company.

"We're just kind of a small town," he says. "People worry about each other a lot."

There's talk of the annual Hearts O' Gold Cantaloupe Festival and a hot dog fund-raiser was just held for one of the cancer victims.

Former police officer Lyndell Smiley is getting his $9 haircut at the downtown Ideal Barber Shop, which doubles as a motorcycle parts shop.

"I think it's terrible," Smiley says as the barber moves the electric razor through his silver hair. "They ought to do some research and find out what's causing it."

He mentions the water, something most residents do, and suggests maybe it's to blame.

"Nothing wrong with the water, Smiley," barber Joe Rando says, the "Jerry Springer" show blaring through the television behind him.

In Fallon, arsenic levels in the water are 10 times the federal standard and the city has been ordered to clean it up. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical that in high concentrations is poisonous. It's sometimes used as an insecticide or to kill weeds, but has never been linked to leukemia.

But the arsenic, a byproduct of the area's soil, has been around so long, many doubt it would be making people sick now.

Besides, the children all drank from different water sources - city water, well water and bottled water.

The arsenic is so accepted, that residents don't seem to mind. "Some more arsenic water?" a waiter at Angelica's Steakhouse asks a customer. A square dance club in town calls themselves the Arsenic Swingers.

"It's a known fact that the water's not the best around here, but I don't know," Mike Story, 50, says from his booth inside Jerry's Restaurant, a popular diner.

"God knows, he knows the problem."

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Tammi Beardsley has gone over it repeatedly in her mind.

"You relive those days. What did I feed him? Where did we go? That's what you do when you're a mom and you're desperate."

Her 5-year-old son Zac was No. 9, diagnosed in November. He is too sick this day to have visitors or to go outside. Too much risk for infection.

The survival rate of this type of childhood leukemia is 80 percent. None of the children here has died.

Zac was born in Canada, but spends summers and part of each winter in Fallon. He has never drank tap water, only bottled.

Of course, Zac's cancer might have nothing to do with what he drank or how he lived. Cancer results from mutant genes. But what causes the mutations? The seeds of Zac's disease could have been there since birth, written into his genetic blueprint.

Still, Beardsley sits up in bed at night, her head full of theories.

"We need to think about how all the children crossed paths," she says. "We need to find out how this is happening."

But that's not so easy.

From 1961 to 1982, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated 108 cancer clusters in 29 states and five foreign countries. No clear cause was found. Not one.

"At this point, we're not finding things that are strikingly in common," state epidemiologist Dr. Randall Todd says. "We're beginning to look for other sources of information.

"What has changed in this community?"

Health officials say they're not looking for a cause, but a link among the children, who were toddlers to age 19 when they were diagnosed.

Each family was asked about their habits and medical history. What is your primary drinking water source? What kind of water do you cook with? Potential sources of chemical and radiation exposure?

The only common characteristic is that all the children live or have lived in the Fallon area.

Is something spreading though this quiet community, attacking its children? Or is it a statistical anomaly - just a coincidence, like flipping a coin 11 times and having it come up heads each time.

Many times the cause of clusters is never found because science does not yet have the tools to identify what triggers them, says Dr. Michael Thun, head of epidemiology at the American Cancer Society.

"It is extremely rare in a community to pin down a cause or to exclude chance with confidence," Thun says.

The state has asked for help from the CDC, the National Cancer Institute and outside epidemiologists. Legislative hearings are planned this month and soon, town meetings will be held. A hotline has been set up for concerned residents, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is sending top staffers from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to investigate.

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"It's pretty much the talk of the town," Dovie Aaron, 70, says, pushing a grocery cart behind Stockman's Casino.

Speculation on potential causes has grown into a never-ending conversation that's picked up in cafes and shops along Maine Street downtown. Residents muse about it in the local newspaper.

Some residents blame the jet fuel dumped by military aircraft at the nearby Fallon Naval Air Station. Or agricultural chemicals. Or something from industrial plants. Or, of course, the water.

The American Cancer Society doctor says there have been studies of this cancer and its relation to pesticides and chemical exposures to parents, but nothing is conclusive.

There's concern about federal testing of nuclear weapons that occurred near Fallon in the 1950s. Epidemiologists say ionizing radiation is a risk factor to leukemia, but tests for radioactive substances in the area's water sources proved negative.

The Navy says it has no reason to believe the base is doing anything to lead to the illnesses.

"It's gotta be something with chemicals," Mike Garabedian, 71, says, making his way into a local casino. "How come this pops up all of a sudden?"

Others don't want to hear anymore about it.

"I think it's a bunch o' bull," Madeline Rando, co-owner of the Ideal Barber Shop says. "I think it's just a freak thing."

Town restaurants say they've noticed customers questioning the water more and asking for bottled water. Some parents have brought in water jugs for their children's school classrooms so they won't drink city water.

"It's scary not knowing what to do to not put your kids at risk," Cara Linde, 26, says, watching her two young children on the Maine Street sidewalk.

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The long eyelashes flutter to reveal the big, soft brown eyes. Dustin smiles and tries to pull himself away from his Gameboy to answer a few questions.

"Everybody says the water, but is it the water?" his father, Reto Gross, asks.

A softball tournament to raise money for Dustin's medical bills has become the annual "Dustin Gross Fun Day."

Dustin is feeling much better these days, thanks to the chemotherapy he and the others endure.

He shows a picture of himself with no hair. "Leukemia," he says.

For now, a community waits. Waits to see if epidemiologists can find a link among the children. Waits to see if any more children will become sick. And waits for its young victims to heal.

Floyd Sands and his daughter moved away from Fallon, but were drawn into this mystery when she was diagnosed with the leukemia in 1999. She was 19 then, and learned of her condition on her son's first birthday.

"It's worse than looking for a needle in a haystack," the father says from his home in Mehoopany, Pa. "First you have to find the haystack."

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