Looking for Answers in a Town Known for Leukemia

When his son stabilized, Braccini immersed himself in the scientific literature. He understood that science takes time, that the cause of leukemia was uncertain, and that there might be not one cause, but several. He knew, too, that an epidemiological investigation would not answer certain questions; it could reveal contaminants in children’s bodies, for example, but not whether those contaminants had acted in tandem to cause leukemia.

A memorial service in 2001 for the first child to die in the cancer cluster. (Joe Cavaretta/AP)

Still, Braccini believed there were holes in the investigation. He suspected one difference between his son and healthy children was not the degree to which they were exposed to toxic substances, but whether they had the genetic tools to detoxify their bodies. He had heard health officials mention this possibility, but genetic studies had only a minor role in the CDC investigation. Braccini also faulted the state’s department of environmental protection for not sampling air and soil more extensively. Investigators collected soils from yards and dust from inside houses, but they seemed to look for contaminants in the wrong places, swabbing television screens and carpets instead of corners families rarely cleaned or ditches where children played. When parents voiced concerns, said Braccini, “It was always the same response. ‘That’s not in our protocol,’ or ‘You just don’t understand the science.’ ”

Experts appointed by the state health division named three suspected causes. The first, arsenic, was ruled out. Fallon’s drinking water had the highest level of any municipality in the nation, 10 times the federal standard, but it occurred naturally and existed long before the cluster appeared. And although repeated exposure can cause skin and bladder cancer, there is no evidence it causes leukemia. A second theory, that a virus infected the children, could have explained why the cluster grew so quickly. Scientists have linked viruses to other kinds of cancer—human papilloma virus to cervical cancer, for example—and research suggests that certain infections can trigger leukemia. But investigators found nothing of note when they tested children.

The third theory—exposure to pollutants—implicated jet fuel. Though not classified as a carcinogen, it contains benzene, which has been linked to acute myeloid leukemia. Only one child had AML; if fuel was the cause, investigators believed, there should have been more. But the fuel, which suppresses the immune systems of mice, also contains chemicals with unknown toxicological effects on humans. Investigators agreed to inspect two possible sources of contamination: The fuel that Navy jets sometimes dumped over the town’s outskirts before landing, blown over on the wind, and the pipeline that carried 34 million gallons of fuel through Fallon annually. In the spring of 2001, officials traced the pipeline on foot and by plane, looking for black soil, distressed vegetation and other signs of a leak. Kinder Morgan injected a tracer chemical into the pipeline and dragged a sensor over its length. No leak appeared; investigators confirmed that the pipeline was sound.

In May 2001, a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter, Frank Mullen, who also walked the pipeline, challenged company claims. He found broken vents and corroded electrical stations—signs, he said, that the pipeline was poorly maintained—and spoke with Scott Meihack, the elementary school principal, who told him that teachers reported “occasional fuel smells.” Kinder Morgan representatives visited Meihack and decided the odor came from a school bus lot. This struck Mullen as suspicious. “They said the pipe never leaked in 50 years since they put it in,” he told me. “Then you ask a retired pipeline guy, and he says, ‘Yes, they freaking leak.’ Gas tanks leak. What about a tank that’s 63 miles long, welded every few yards, in the most alkali ground in the United States?”

That summer, Kinder Morgan announced it would make repairs. The repairmen worked in the dark. Some parents watched them. One night around 11 p.m., Braccini got a call from Floyd Sands, whose daughter also had leukemia. Sands said that workers were digging up the pipe by the school. As he neared, Braccini glimpsed a dump truck, a backhoe and several white trucks parked around a hole. “Floyd started snapping photos,” Braccini recalled. “That’s what got them really pissed. They shooed us away.”

Braccini doubted that jet fuel caused the cluster. He was sure the pipeline had leaked—he could smell fuel—but his son had not yet started school. Nor had Ralph Seiler, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist with whom Braccini corresponded, found hydrocarbons in Fallon wells. Still, Braccini began to wonder: Why hadn’t investigators sampled soils from irrigation ditches, the schoolyard, or along the pipeline?

“Sometimes I think they didn’t do these things, or maybe they didn’t tell us, because they were afraid parents would say, ‘That’s what it is,’ and point the finger,” Brenda Gross, whose son had leukemia, told me. In August 2002, Gross and eight other parents met with Jan Schlichtmann, the lawyer who prosecuted the Woburn case. Although Schlichtmann had amassed an enormous body of evidence implicating two companies in Woburn, the lawsuit lasted seven years and left him broke, and the defendants never admitted fault. Schlichtmann advised the Fallon parents to use litigation as a last resort. So they formed Families in Search of the Truth—FIST—to promote more thorough scientific research.

“I truly was not looking to find fault,” Gross said. “But the state had blinders on, and if you follow a straight path and never deviate, those needles in a haystack are a lot harder to find.”

“We felt like we were in search of the truth,” Randall Todd told me one September morning at his Reno office. Todd, 60, is an earnest, balding man, with the manner of one accustomed but not hardened to criticism. He left the Nevada State Health Division in 2005 and is now director of epidemiology and public health preparedness for Washoe County. “But we’re the government,” he said. “We’re always going to be under some suspicion that we’re trying to protect industry or the military.”

Throughout the investigation, Todd reminded Fallon residents that the odds of finding a cause were low. “That said,” he explained, “we had a terrible time managing the expectations of this community.” Critics read officials’ caution as lack of resolve. The director of the health division resigned after an administrator chided her for “not moving quickly enough.” Todd was instructed to speak frequently to the press. He was not treated kindly. When a reporter asked why he didn’t “think outside the box,” he replied, “You’re right. I haven’t consulted psychics or ouija boards. There’s a box outside of which I won’t go, and that box is science.” On the Phil Donohue Show, a father called him “mister” instead of “doctor,” saying Todd was a bureaucrat, “not a real doctor.” NBC’s Ann Curry asked, “Isn’t it true that some children have died?” “Yes,” he replied. “Dr. Todd,” Curry said, “how can you live with yourself?”

Todd rarely strayed from his script.  “I tried to reassure people that good science is seldom fast,” he told me. “I don’t think they liked that message, and there were others coming around with messages more likeable than ours.”

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Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a freelance journalist and contributing editor for High Country News.

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