Looking for Answers in a Town Known for Leukemia

One was Alan Levin, April Brune’s attorney, who called Todd in the fall of 2000. He introduced himself as “Doctor Lawyer Levin” and a Woburn investigator. According to Todd, “He said, ‘I think this could be the cluster where we find the viral trigger of childhood leukemia.’ ” Todd agreed but soon grew wary of Levin and his motives. “He indicated that if he saw some deep pockets responsible for this, he’d go after them,” recalled Todd. “He thought law was one of the greatest forces for social good in this country. You’ll never hear a physician say that.” Levin also claimed there was a test that could tell if a child was genetically predisposed to leukemia. Todd consulted several experts who assured him that such a test did not exist. He skimmed A Civil Action: “There’s a point in it where a judge accuses him of ‘screwball science.’ ” By then, Todd had stopped talking with Levin.

Levin continued to attend public meetings, often with Gary Ridenour, the local physician and Ryan Brune’s hospice doctor. They made an odd pair. Levin, who once held research appointments at the University of California-San Francisco, a top-ranked medical school, is gaunt, well-dressed, and frequently mentions his friendship with the late Mafia boss, Joseph Bonanno. Ridenour, who styles himself “the last country doctor,” earned his degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, in Mexico, and, for a period in the 1990s, lost his license after illegally dispensing painkillers. (He now runs a bustling practice and has been voted “best doctor” in the local paper seven years in a row.) Todd believed both men were purveyors of false information. At one meeting, when an attendee asked if there really was a test for susceptibility to leukemia, and Todd said no, Levin yelled, “You know that’s not true!” At another, Levin referred to the cluster as “a simple, simple problem.” This criticism still haunted Todd. Once a legislator told him, “Maybe I’ve watched Erin Brockovich too many times, but I just feel that if we all go out there and dig, we’ll find the answer.”

“In the movies,” Todd told me, “it’s not about an epidemiological investigation,” which seldom has clear heroes and villains. “It’s about an attorney who rides in and holds a company responsible for putting something in the environment, all wrapped up with a nice bow on it. These people badly wanted to find the answer. We wanted to make sure they understood that we might provide an answer, but we might not. I don’t think they heard that. Would I hear that if I had a sick child? I don’t know that I would.”

*  *  *

One June morning, I met April Brune at her house in a hilly suburb above Reno. She is a warm, unflinching woman. Her face was ruddy from watering plants, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. The lawsuit had made little progress, she said, but Levin assured her that “things are happening.” She had a good feeling about him. He would take a fee if they won, but he wasn’t in it for the money, nor was she. They talked about using the funds to build a pediatric cancer research center in northern Nevada.

Still, she wasn’t any closer to knowing what caused Ryan’s tumor or whether it was related to the cluster. Sometimes, she blamed herself. “It kills me, all the ‘what ifs’ in my head,” she said. “What if we had moved? What if it was when I smoked pot in high school? Stupid things like that.” She couldn’t help but feel that those around her knew something she did not. Once, while stopped at a traffic light beside a Kinder Morgan truck, she briefly thought about inviting the driver for a drink to see what he might tell her. “You just want the 100 percent truth,” she said. “You have all these people saying, ‘No, it’s not the pipeline,’ and then you question yourself. Am I doing the right thing? I believe the pipeline leaked, but I don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wasn’t there. And I haven’t found someone who was—who can tell me, ‘I fixed that leak.’ That’s my struggle. I don’t want to blame someone wrongly for something so tragic.”

There is little doubt that Ryan was exposed to jet fuel. While April was pregnant, her husband, Tim, fixed airplane fuel cells; later, she refueled planes at the airport. Studies show that workers regularly exposed to fuel exhale and off-gas hydrocarbons long after contact. Since the Brunes’ employers have settled, though, the case now hinges on whether the pipeline leaked, which Kinder Morgan continues to deny.

A leak seems likely, though there is not much more than sworn testimony to prove it. The most compelling witness is Mark Witten, whom Ridenour, the local doctor, invited to Fallon early in the investigation. Witten was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arizona and spent 20 years studying jet fuel toxicology for the Air Force. In depositions, he describes visiting the repair site by E.C. Best Elementary on three occasions. From 20 yards away, he was “overwhelmed” by fumes. Once, he says, fuel got on his boots, and his rental car company charged a cleaning fee. He later returned to Fallon with a tree-ring researcher, Paul Sheppard, to extract wood cores from five cottonwoods roughly 50 feet from the repair site. They detected naphthalene, a component of jet fuel, but when they returned months later to replicate the study, a road had been moved and the trees cut down.

A harder question to answer is if jet fuel caused Ryan’s tumor. In October 2012, at Levin’s request, Witten acquired brain tissue from Ryan and two individuals without cancer. Witten noted two unusual things about Ryan’s sample: It contained tungsten, a heavy metal, and it had a “vastly different hydrocarbon profile.” With so few samples, Witten could not say why, nor could he identify the hydrocarbons as jet fuel. “Is it due to him being exposed?” he said. “I’m not willing to speculate.”

Tungsten is another inscrutable piece of Fallon’s cancer puzzle. Late in 2002, the CDC announced that 68 percent of study participants had high levels of tungsten in their urine. Investigators met first with cluster families to review results. There was no sign, Braccini recalled, that his son Jeremy was exposed to jet fuel, but some numbers stood out. Jeremy had above average DDE, a byproduct of DDT. He had twice as much arsenic as the average American adult. He had 60 times the tungsten. “Once I saw that,” Braccini said, “it hurt me to put my son in the bathtub.”

The numbers surprised investigators, who had not considered tungsten a suspect. Little is known about the metal’s toxicology, and it was even unclear where the tungsten had come from. Braccini believed he knew. In the late 1990s, he worked for Kennametal, a firm that refines tungsten 10 miles north of Fallon and mills it at a plant in town, next to an elementary school. The Reno Gazette-Journal revealed that until 1990, the state exempted Kennametal from the Clean Air Act, allowing it to burn waste in the open air.

But investigators avoided mention of Kennametal when they presented the results to the public. Ralph Seiler of the USGS insisted that tungsten, like arsenic, occurs naturally in Fallon’s aquifers. To be sure, the CDC gathered urine samples from residents in three Nevada towns without tungsten mills and found that all had tungsten levels above the national average. The agency concluded, “Exposure to tungsten in Churchill County does not appear to be unique.” The report did not mention the study’s most striking result: Fallon children had two to four times as much tungsten as children in other towns. The CDC nominated tungsten to the National Toxicology Program for further study; the metal is still awaiting analysis.

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

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