Looking for Answers in a Town Known for Leukemia

Investigators had not found the cause of the cluster—both sick and healthy individuals exhibited tungsten—but they had, parents believed, found reason for concern. Not everyone agreed. A February 2003 editorial by the Lahontan Valley News read the lack of proof as permission to put the issue to rest: “It is reassuring to know nothing in the environment is an acute health hazard.” When Todd recommended that residents drink bottled water until a water treatment plant was built, Fallon’s mayor, Ken Tedford, dismissed the advice as alarmist.

Tedford’s reaction departed from his earlier handling of the cluster. “If I was moving my family to Fallon,” he had said at one public meeting, “I would want to know that this community addressed the problem—it didn’t deny it was there—and it helped those families that were suffering.” As time passed, however, he became less responsive to parents’ questions and dismissive of research beyond the official investigation. “I would tell the mayor that we needed to promote more research so people could make the decision to live here on their own terms, but he didn’t want anything with leukemia tied in with the town,” Brenda Gross told me. She believed his reasons were economic. Between 1999 and 2002, Fallon home values fell 15 percent. The Navy base allowed sailors’ families to remain at their former bases until the investigation was complete. Business owners bemoaned the situation; an auto dealer blamed his 40 percent revenue loss on “the new image of Fallon.”

When I asked parents if they felt supported by the community, some made an important distinction: “The community really looked at our children as their children,” Carinsa Phelan, whose daughter survived leukemia, told me. “But there was not as much support in finding out what was going on, because these are big companies in Fallon. It was like, ‘Yes, I’m sorry your children are sick, but this is our livelihood.’ ” Braccini said he sometimes felt “blamed for the downfall of this community.” Once, at the hospital, waiting for his son’s blood test results, he overheard a lab technician say that the cluster families “brought the cancer with them” to Fallon. “ ‘My son was conceived, born, and raised here,’ ” Braccini recalled saying. “ ‘Is that not good enough for you?’ They just stared back at me. People were polite, but it was a phony kind of polite. I realized the general public knew only a small amount of what transpired, so you felt alone in what you knew.”

In 2003, FIST members met regularly to discuss strategy. Braccini and Gross wanted to recruit scientists to do better environmental sampling and investigate hypotheses they believed state and federal agencies neglected. Though Senator Reid offered to raise funds for more research, parents found little support otherwise. Their numbers dwindled as families moved away and time passed without new diagnoses.

Officials declared the investigation closed in 2004. “As long as parents stayed involved, someone somewhere would try to keep the research going,” Gross said. But she worried that scientists would refuse to work with FIST. Two parents had filed wrongful death suits against Kennametal and the city. “I tried to tell families that we had to stay open-minded if we wanted to get any research done. You could tell that some were looking for information to blame someone with.” A father began to withhold findings due to confidentiality agreements with his lawyer. Gross didn’t blame him; through subpoena, the case would likely uncover corporate documents inaccessible to the public. She also sensed a different desperation in those who sued: “They lost their children. Mine lived.”

But the disagreement broke up the organization. Gross stopped attending meetings. She had spent much of three years away from home for legislative hearings and media appearances. Through it all, she worked full-time as an office manager. She realized the toll it was taking one morning when her daughter missed the school bus. “After everything we’d been through and coming up empty-handed, I just had to let go and focus on my family.”

Phelan, who left Fallon in 2004, said something similar: “I think I lost focus on what was most important, which was my child and getting her better, because it became all about finding out what was going on.”

*  *  *

Todd had not intended the search for a cause to end with the official investigation. He described to me the thin line between “making sure there’s nothing obvious lurking in the community”—government investigators’ role—and doing research. “We said, ‘We’re going to go up to this point, and others can go beyond that.’ We had the sense that even though this was a highly significant cluster, it wasn’t large enough to find the answers, and we hoped that researchers would be able to cast a larger net.” In other words, scientists would have to combine Fallon’s samples with those from leukemia patients in the larger population and look for things that set Fallon’s apart.

For years after the investigation closed, several scientists did carry on. In 2004, Senator Reid secured $250,000 for Jill James, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas, to investigate a difference in the way Fallon children with and without leukemia metabolized toxic substances. James found that sick children had less glutathione, an antioxidant, in their blood. This could mean that children who developed leukemia were less able to rid their bodies of arsenic, tungsten, and jet fuel. Over time, these lingering contaminants may have damaged their DNA, making them susceptible to cancer. James never published the findings. She had only 20 blood samples—not enough to reach a conclusive result.

In 2006, Senator Reid secured another $700,000. Remaining FIST members, with help from the University of Nevada-Reno, solicited proposals. Three research teams won grants, including Witten to study the role of tungsten in leukemia development. After detecting naphthalene in the trees by the school, Witten and Sheppard had measured tungsten using a similar technique. Among their most compelling discoveries is that tungsten levels are significantly higher in tree rings since the mid-to-late 1990s, right before the cluster began. They have published more than a dozen scientific papers on the topic, many in reputable journals. But their work has drawn criticism, first from Todd, who recounted a phone call in which he accused Witten of bad methodology. Witten did not recall the conversation, and when I asked about Todd’s other criticism—that Witten shared his results with the press before publishing them—he said, “That’s just a cheap shot.”

Other critics are Seiler, the USGS hydrologist who maintains that the tungsten is natural, and scientists employed by Kennametal, who accuse Witten and Sheppard of misrepresenting data. Both have been deposed for ongoing litigation against Kennametal, and lawyers have subpoenaed their data and emails. Witten does not hide his opinions. “The story in all of this is how big companies go out to these little towns, and they’re the only employer, and they get away with murder, essentially, in the way they pollute,” he told me. Sheppard is more cautious: “I cannot say that tungsten causes leukemia. It may appear that one side wants me to survive and one side doesn’t, but that’s not my problem.”

There is only one team of scientists still actively researching the cluster, led by Joseph Wiemels, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco. In October, I met Wiemels and his collaborator, Stephen Francis, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley Department of Epidemiology, at the Childhood Leukemia Research Center. Wiemels wore wire-rimmed glasses and the studied look of a laboratory scientist. Francis had sun-bleached hair to his shoulders. Wiemels received one of Reid’s grants in 2006 to investigate the possibility that a virus triggered the cluster. According to a respected theory, leukemia clusters may arise when waves of transient people spread infection to an otherwise isolated population. Fallon’s population shifts annually due to the Navy base; at the time of the cluster, there was a spike in childhood leukemia among families in the armed forces at large.

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

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